Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Problems with common assessment

I would like to challenge the idea of common assessment.  Not just common throughout a department but common even in a single classroom.  From this time further I will refer to these assessments as their true name “Standardized Assessments”.  The definition of a standardized assessment is:

a test that is administered and scored in a consistent, or "standard", manner. Standardized tests are designed in such a way that the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent.
I have asked why do teachers give common assessment?  I will provide the two top reasons I heard, and then my counter-argument.

1) Standardized assessment allows for fair and equal assessment practices between the same courses throughout the school.
Counter: What is fair is not always equal and what is equal isn’t always fair.  If we truly want equal assessment, then should we not require all students to write with the same hand, take off their glasses, set the temperature in all the rooms to be the same, and have all students write with the same type of pencil?  I know this sounds absurd, but where does the fair and equal practice stop?  Each and every student, in my class, has a different set of needs and abilities yet these exams will force each student to be put through the same hole.  Alberta Education recently, wrote
Differentiated assessment means selecting tools and strategies to provide each student with the best opportunity to demonstrate his or her learning. As you get to know your students, and as student differences emerge, assessment naturally becomes more differentiated, because its purpose is to meet students where they are and to coach them to the next step. In this way, assessment and instruction continue to support and inform each other.

By making these decisions before ever “knowing my students” how is one to decide which would be the “best opportunity for each student to demonstrate his or her learning”?  I do not see standardized assessment as a fair and equal practice at all.

2) Standardized assessment allows for fair and equal instructional practices between courses throughout the school.

Counter: This seems like the standardized assessment is more assessing the teacher than the student now.  Even if two students, in two different classes, receive the same mark this does not guarantee the same instruction has been given.  One teacher could be “teaching to the test” and involving daily test prep activities while the other is implementing quality instruction and critical thinking.

Now, the problems I see with common assessment:
First and foremost: It is the duty and responsibility of the classroom teacher to determine how and when to assess each student.  I am confused and distraught when people, outside the class, control the assessment strategies, without even knowing the individual students they are impacting.  
Alberta Education’s ideas are:
Differentiating assessment involves rethinking the standard practice of having all students do the same assessment tasks at the same time, regardless of their individual learning needs or the learning they have already demonstrated. Rather, in this new paradigm, teachers customize the selection and use of assessment information to reflect each student’s highest level of achievement.

Also, I refer to these as standardized assessments as they are designed in such a way the class average should fall in a “reasonable” zone.  This zone may differ from teacher to teacher and from class to class but this underlying bell curve does exist.  I have heard of meetings where discussions such as “The average was low, so the test should be made easier” or “The average was too high, so we need to increase the difficulty” have been had.  This saddens me as we are requiring students to fail such that others can feel success.
Since by the definition and the manner these assessments are designed, usually, they must fall on a specific day, common to all teachers of the same course, and also consist of some mixture of the following:
·         MC 5-10 questions
·         NR 3-5 questions
·         WR 2-5 questions with bullets
Usually the test days, and requirements are decided before the first day of school

By having standardized exams, we are going against the research and knowledge of our government.  Also, it should be the freedom of the teacher to decide, and indeed, the freedom of each student to decide how and when they will be assessed on their knowledge.  Of course we all know that some people employed as teachers are of different quality, but by forcing everyone to assess, and ultimately, teach the same way it may not improve teachers of a lower quality but actually hobble the good ones.


  1. I agree with you! They do tend to group all the kids in the same category. For Erica (10yrs old with a severe learning disability) they make her write the same tests as everyone else and it is frustrating. The teachers do not want to exempt her from the exam because then she will score a 0 and will drag down the school average. They actually REALLY accommodate her by giving her a reader and a scribe so she can do the exam. Then it shows that she is very average in her learning and executing when she is clearly not.
    She learns in a completely different way and all I do is try to convince the teachers they need to try different techniques to help her learn so she can lead a relatively successful educational career.

  2. I feel that while standardized exams are not the best way to asses learning, they are the only way have a way for universities to be able to make an educated decision on admission for students. Without exams such as the diplomas in Alberta or the SAT in the United States, universities would be forced to implement their own entrance exams, which would be replacing one standardized exam for another, or by creating "weeder" courses which would just be a waste of money for those who are qualified for university and a waste of time for those who are not.

  3. Have you done any research into RTI? Standardized assessments are very helpful to identify kids that need supports in place. Standardized tests do not have to be the bogey man that some on #abed proclaim. The MISUSE of them is the problem. Think big picture...whole school interventions. Tracey

  4. I am not challenging diplomas here, or standardized assessments as the final assessment, what I am saying is that the assessments along the way should be individualized. Too many times I see teachers using diplomas as the reason for common assessment throughout the entire term. I do not agree with this. Tyler and Tracey I agree with you fully, but my beef is with common unit exams, common quizzes, common notes, common lesson plans, etc.

  5. When developed by a team of teachers who are focused on the success of their students,common assessments are a wonderful tool. Not only do they guide teaching practice and determine focus areas of study, they help teachers learn from each other, stay focused on their job of teaching new skills based on the curriculum, and they allow departments to track student success rates, learning difficulties, and strengths. They should be used as a tool to measure many things, and not seen as 'standardized'. There is an abundance of research that supports this. How do you know your assessment practices are a true measure of student learning when you have nothing to compare it to?