Testing, Assessment, and Feedback

by Matthew Koslowski on July 29, 2009
in Essays

In This Essay

Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn R. Jackson
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes by Alfie Kohn
“Feedback as Assessment” by Grant Wiggins

In order to begin sailing at Community Boating, a member needs to earn the Solo Rating. To earn that members need to demonstrate:

  • that they can rig the mainsail on a Cape Cod Mercury by rigging a boat in the slip;
  • and that they have an understanding of how boats move and of the right of way rules by passing an oral quiz, the Solo Test.

Everything one needs to learn to pass the Solo Test is taught in Shore School.

Shore School is a one hour lecture on sailing. A classroom lecture. On land. With a whiteboard. In a bay with wide garage doors that open onto the Charles River and the fleet of boats and, at least we hope, sunshine. Shore School is considered one of the more difficult courses to teach.

Last Thursday, July 23rd, I attended a seminar, “Classroom Management/Learning Styles” at Community Boating so that I can teach Shore School as well as Rigging. Marcin, the seminar presenter, spoke about the teaching style of several of Community Boating’s Shore School teachers. One stood out.

Do you get it?

Once Paul, a teacher for the Junior Program, has finished giving his lecture, he tapes the Solo Test study guide to the wall, writes the numbers associated with each question on the whiteboard, and asks his students to place a check mark next to any question they did not understand.  After taking a look over the areas that have the most check marks, Paul approaches the material again and helps the students overcome the difficulties they had in grasping the topic. I had come across that very suggestion in Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching.

How are we to view Paul’s method? He has asked his students to grade him on how well he taught the lecture. Paul simply asks for an assessment of his performance in real time!

He does not wait for his students to fail their Solo Test, but rather adjusts his approach while he still has the power to impact his students. That this seems like a radical notion for a teacher is a sad reflection on methods employed by many teachers. The stereotype, as much as I hate to say it, is that a teacher will say, “My students just aren’t getting it! I’ve tried and tried! They just aren’t capable.”

Absent from that stereotype is the teacher saying, “I asked my students what they were not understanding throughout the course of the unit and have adjusted my approach based on what they have told me.”

Dr. Jackson writes that if you collect test scores but do not adjust your approach you are wasting your students’ time and your own (132). “Checking for understanding throughout the class period,” Robyn Jackson writes on page 131, “gives you an opportunity to see in real-time how students are progressing towards mastery and adjust your instruction based on their needs.”

Should we test? Should we assess?

We need systems of testing, assessment and feedback. The system that we often see is not functional for educating our children: a teacher decides how long the unit will be, presents the material and then provides a test at what the teacher has decided is the end, and then moves on to the next section regardless of whether students passed or failed. Paul knows what Alfie Kohn argues, “If you’re not sure whether students feel ready to show you what they know, there is an easy way to find out: ask them,” (Kohn 208).

There are three related, but not synonymous words that need to be discussed: test, assessment, and feedback. “Test” and “assessment” are so close as to be nearly synonymous but “feedback” stands out. Feedback seems the most active of the words, perhaps because the word is used in business to mean soliciting ideas, collecting them, analyzing them and then using them to chart a course forward. Grant Wiggins in his article “Feedback as Assessment” defines feedback as “information about what [was] and was not accomplished, given a specific goal.”

But do the words “test” and “assessment” mean something different? “Test” is the more limited of the words. All tests are assessments but not all assessments are tests. When most people hear the word test, they usually think of a paper document with a list of questions to be answered. For the most part tests are used to measure, sort, and rank students argues Alfie Kohn in his book Punished by Rewards.  Alfie Kohn goes on to argue that we should not assign grades unless those grades are “A” and “Incomplete” (Kohn 208), an idea that Robyn Jackson echoes by suggesting a three grade system, “A”, “B”, and “Not Yet” (Jackson 148).

An assessment also measures skills but it carries the connotation of being more complete while also being less value-laden.

Using tests and assessments throughout a unit, rather than at the end, allows teachers to pace the lesson. If an assessment at the beginning of a unit reveals students have previously mastered some of the material, the teacher can adjust the unit to focus on what the students don’t know and deepening what they already know (Jackson 132-133).

Educating Students Using Feedback

Wiggins makes an important point: “How would the tennis player improve if all the coach did was shout out letter grades or stanines?” Jackson argues that the purpose of education is to help individuals move towards mastery of a body of knowledge and set of skills. Providing students with feedback throughout the lesson and throughout the unit as well as soliciting feedback from students allows the teacher to assess how to pace the lessons. Many teachers groan because there is so much to teach, so many gaps to fill. Jackson makes a radical suggestion by challenging the assumption underlying that idea:  “there are several different ways to deal with a hole. One way is to fill it, but another way is to build a bridge to cross it,” (Jackson 162).

When she was an English teacher, Jackson noticed that her students repeated mistakes from essay to essay and noticed that some students would look quickly at the grade and then discard the essay. I would point out that sticking an essay in a folder never to look at it again is as much discarding as throwing it in a trash bin. She asked herself if there was a better way.

Jackson decided to focus on discussing their mistakes rather than just assigning a grade which she describes between pages 140 to 143 in her book. Her method involved:

  • devising an analytical framework:
    • seven of the categories were flexible;
    • one of the categories varied from essay to essay;
    • each category was assigned a specific color.
  • introducing the framework when she assigned the paper;
  • reviewing it when she discussed revising papers; and
  • employing the framework to educate students.

Instead of grading in the traditional sense, she underlined sections of each students’ paper that were weak in the color assigned to a particular category. The result, Jackson writes, was that, “Our conversations about their papers shifted from a discussion of their grade to setting goals for how they would write their next paper” (Jackson 142).

So, the question is not, as I stated it above, “Should we test?” but rather “How do we use tests to educate our children?” To educate our children we need to change the focus from high-stakes testing to consistent assessment and testing throughout the learning process that demonstrates and proves mastery.


2 Responses to “Testing, Assessment, and Feedback”
  1. Lee Marcotte says:

    This concept embraces the power that teachers exercise (consciously or unconsciously) everyday. By providing a safe learning environment such as this mastery can only follow.