It Could Be Better

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It Could Be Better


Take a moment to think about your worst test. For me it was macroeconomics. Unable to understand concepts such as GDP Deflator and Quantity Equation, I memorized parts of the text and got accused of plagiarism. Fortunately, it was an understanding professor who explained why I might like microeconomics better. His feedback included relevant advice for achieving my goals. And I was grateful!

For many students, the word test conjures up feelings of fear and images of failure. Especially for those whose COMT* gene predisposes them to stress. Assessment, on the other hand, is intended to reduce stress, emphasize progress, engage learners, and improve outcomes.

What do you think would  be the better way to assess student understanding? A multiple-choice test on content knowledge or an assessment of ability to apply learning. Consider these two questions:

  1. What percent of individuals have the COMT gene version that predisposes them to stress?
    11% 24%                   3. 47%                   4. 73%
  2. If you know that many students become highly stressed by tests and measures, explain, two steps you will take to reduce those stress levels? Explain each step in 2 to 4 sentences.

Most educators choose 2 as the better option. What are your thoughts?

Intentional Assessment
When assessment is restored to its original intent-meaning to assist and guide by being close at hand- students are less fretful and more willing to give it their best effort. Assessment acknowledges the social and emotional underpinnings of learning. When viewed in this light, the focus changes from tests that exclude some learners to assessment that supports all learners. Intentional assessment is purposeful, engaging, and focused on progress. Adjusting the lens from standardized testing to responsive assessment means students know the learning intentions and success criteria, track their own progress, and resolve lingering misperceptions.

Balanced and Restorative Assessment
Assessment is balanced and restorative when it is inclusive of all learners. Ask any teacher to point out their superstars and they can readily identify their top achievers. But what about Alef who is struggling to learn math yet always willing to revise his work as well as share his meager lunch with a kind word and smile. Or Bettina, who completes her homework with accuracy and precision, when she doesn’t have to watch her three younger siblings while her mom works two jobs. These students may not have the highest numerical averages, but they work hard and demonstrate the social and emotional outlook and skills for success. Consider Regina, who knew little English at the beginning of the school year, is still reading 2 levels below grade level, but understands that progress is most important for her success. In these ways assessment is inclusive of all learners while providing access to each learner.

All students can be successful. It depends on the lens we view them through. Consider how you assess and report student success. Do you take a close-up view, primarily data-driven, sometimes producing walls of data and report cards that mystify even the most measurement savvy parents? Or do you take a bigger-picture view that supports students as assessors and values growth over final scores? We have tons of data, but the lingering question is how it is used to benefit students, classrooms, and schools.

Consider steps you will take to move the meter from the left to the right side of this chart. There is space in each section to record your thoughts, recommendations, and action plans.


Fixed learning sequences                                                                    Flexible sequences

Prearranged schedules for learning                                           Adjustable scheduling

Pre-determined learning objectives                          Personalized learning intentions

Learning is segmented by content                                                    Integrated learning

Teacher known learning outcomes                 Student developed learning outcomes

Frequent mandated tests                                                                       Multiple methods

Reporting of final scores                                                  Revealing growth and mastery


Symmetry and Purpose
Restoring balance in assessment doesn’t mean seesawing from side to side. Rather it means seeking ways to move teaching, learning, and assessment practices towards the right side of the chart. It means moving the fulcrum in service of the best types and outcomes of assessment, and in doing so meeting the needs of all learners while making the best use of sound assessment practices.

Students are most successful when there are varied and variable measures across a spectrum of learning outcomes, assessments are infused throughout teaching and learning, and a continuous pulse of learning is taken. In this way, responses can be designed to meet the needs of all learners. For Sumina who is creative, illustrating her understanding of chemical reactions comes easier than remembering where to find tungsten on the periodic table, while Rilez, who has memorized the periodic table, needs help making sense of it.

Please don’t misunderstand my intention or interpret this as a one-sided position. Rather take it as advocacy, guidance, and encouragement for finding balance in assessment.  Consider your students, the types of assessment given to them, and how learning outcomes are reported. Flip thinking from external testing mandates to local needs; from narrow data analysis to broadband assessments; and from summative measures to progress towards mastery. In this way assessment will be restored to its intended purpose.

ESSA provide opportunities for setting achievement goals, developing rating systems, and looking beyond test scores. At the same time, each state’s and district’s practices must ensure equity, balance, and fairness for all students. Locally, this means visible dashboards rather than summative school scores, support rather than sanctions, and planning rather than penalties. This works for all schools, classrooms, and students.


*Learn more about COMT gene, test worriers, and test worriers at by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman

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