Exam Week: The Quest for the Perfect Assessment

Today marks the start of the 2011 Mid-Term exam week. Even just in the midst of my third year on the other side of the desk I have come across some interesting differences between being in the exam versus now designing and grading the exam. When I was in high school we had quizzes, tests, exams, but now, having gone through professional development to become a teacher, I now know them as assessments.

Assessment, it’s a hot word in education, and I have spent many hours trying to find the best way to assess what students have learned. A high quality assessment, in my book, and hopefully anyone in education for that matter, is one that allows a student to successfully demonstrate what he or she knows or has learned about a specific topic. So, as I sat down to design my exams in preparation for this weeks series of exams my goal was to make a test that would provide my students with a variety of opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned in the first semester of their respective Biology classes.

From this process I made this realization: There is an inverse relationship between the quality of the assessment and the ease with which it can be graded.

For those of you who may be a little rusty with your math lingo what I am saying is that the better an assessment is at providing students with opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge, the harder or more time consuming it is to grade; on the other hand the easier it is to grade the more limited the assessment is at providing students with opportunities to show their stuff.

For instance take test 1. A test 30 pages long with say 10 multiple choice questions per page, giving a total of 300 questions. These 300 questions would be able to cover the variety of different topics covered  over the semester, with less point value per question topic. This could be beneficial for a student who just didn’t get one unit and so maybe gets the 15 questions about that one topic wrong, but does well on the the other sections. However, I wonder does this assess what the student has learned or if he or she simple memorized the right 300 facts, because thats what multiple choice questions tests factoid and how good a student can memorize and spew back those factoids. Is this a high quality assessment? For some students? For all students?

Ok, on to test 2. This test is broken into four parts 30-50 multiple choice questions, a vocabulary fill in the blank section, 20 or so short answer questions and finally an experimental design section. Section 1 allows students to show their ability to spew back facts, but now maybe just the key ideas or ones that that have been focused the most. Section 2 also mainly based on single pieces of information, giving back a memorized definition.

The final two sections, to me this is where the magic happens. Short answer allows students to look back at the facts they have memorized, or vocabulary they have learned and now apply that information to synthesize something new to answer a broader question. Here they can discussion what they have learned based on connections to their own lives, but this type of questioning also takes their thinking to a new level and allows them to demonstrate both that they have learned information, but also have learned how to think about it. Higher order thinking is possible here, explaining why something is a certain way not just that it is that way.

Finally, the last  section experimental design. A student is given a scientific question and has to create a hypothesis regarding the question and design an experiment to test that hypothesis, or is provided with data they must graph and analyze. Just look at the verbs here: “create”, “design”, and “analyze” these allow students to both access and demonstrate the abilities of different parts of their brains beyond simply supplying the fact of who, what, where, or when…. Is this a high quality assessment? for some students? For all students?

If you compare your answers to the questions I posed regarding test 1 and test 2 they may be similar. Maybe each test could be considered a quality assessment for the right student. I guarantee that neither test would work for all students, and I would not attempt to blindly either of these tests with all students. However, I’m sure you can guess based on my tone and descriptions, I believe test 2 is a much better assessment and will provide the students I designed it for with a much greater variety of opportunities  to show me what they have learned than test 1 ever could. Oh yeah, did I mention  its a description of an exam I made?

Could their be an option 3? Pure synthesis? Students using information they have learned to create something a project, a model, a video, a song? I’d say yes! But you’ll have to wait for more on that.

This brings me back to my  previous realization that test 1 would definitely be easier to grade, simply throw down an answer key and put an x if answers don’t match. Compared to going through and reading each student responses and determining what connections they have made, where they have earned partial credit for partial understanding and even trying to decode some of the most unique combinations of words that represent an answer.

So, yes it does take time to design a quality assessment and yes it does take time to grade an assessment that does its job to the best of its ability, but isn’t that what it’s about. Creating ways for students to show you just how much they know. As of yet, I have not made the perfect assessment, every test I make is an experiment. I try something new, test it on my students, and then go back and analyze the results to make changes. This is science after all.


One response

  1. Your latest posting raises a central issue in education. Traditionally, assessment has been viewed as away to see if students have learned. However, the true purpose of student assessment should be to judge the effectiveness of our instruction. Unfortunately, assessments that help us to see if there is true student understanding of the content are very labor intensive and often impracticable as noted in your quest for an assessment the encourages students to synthesize information. This is where projects and other activities can serve as assessments. Given the time constraints and huge demands to address a broad curriculum these types of assessments are often difficult to pull off in the real world. As such, we can try to the make the most of a less than ideal situation. As you noted, objective tests, while expeditious, tend to assess knowledge and if we are creative in our item development can readily address comprehension and application. The best types of questions on these types of assessments are those that ask students to compare and contrast newly learned information with prior information. This type of question serves not only as an assessment but also solidifies the new information. When we ask students to compare and contrast they have to think about the material at a deeper level. When we consider new information at a deeper level it facilitates retention. When be consider new information in the context of existing, established information the associations that are created help us to retain and recall the newer information. As such, the assessment activity becomes an instructional activity as well.

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