Essay About What Are We Really Assessing?

This article by the Washington Post is great on so many levels. Check it out, please, but to summarize, Hampshire College in Massachusetts stopped taking students SAT/ACT scores. It’s explanation of why is pretty spot on, I’ve pulled the following right out of the article:

• Standardized test scores do not predict a student’s success at our college.

• SATs/ACTs are strongly biased against low-income students and students of color, at a time when diversity is critical to our mission…

• Some good students are bad test takers, particularly under stress, such as when a test may grant or deny college entry. Multiple-choice tests don’t reveal much about a student.

This highlights the importance of making assessments authentic and valid. It got me thinking about my first commandment ever since I became a teacher:


Everything I ask my students to do must have a valid reason,otherwise, why am I asking them to do it? I try to apply this to every note I have them take, every assignment I assign, every video I show. It sounds simple, I know. But my high school experience, often heavy on worksheets and endless old VHS tapes, would indicate that it is not common practice.

Refusing to give students busy work has led me to some much deeper, much more challenging questions.

First: Why am I teaching what I am teaching?

The easy answer is to say: whatever my _____ (school, district, state, Federal Government), tells me too. But it’s worth it to look a little deeper. Lets take the 13 colonies. Do my kids really need to know the 13 colonies? (I’d say yes) If so, why?

They probably don’t need to know them so they can pass some standardized test.

But I’d argue it is valuable for them to know why this country was founded to help explain who we are today (no drinking until 21? Thanks Puritans).

It is useful to know that there were other people who lived here first, whose land we took through treaties, war, and broken treaties to provide some breadth to current debates about immigration.

It is important to know that the geographical differences between North and South that eventually led to Civil War still cast their shadow on us.

What do my grades mean? 

This question, if you really think about it, is a little more unsettling. Grades are so arbitrary. Take the SAT and ACT tests. Millions and millions have been poured into developing, administering, studying for them, and in the end many colleges still are asking “are they valid?”

Well, probably. Like most test I’m sure they are valid at testing memorization and vocabulary, and of course, test taking skills.

Are they a valid predictor of success? Well, study after study says, probably not.

What do our grades reflect? Mastery of content? Ideally.

If a lot of the grade is based on quizzes and paper tests they might reflect the ability to memorize and test-take just like the SATs,

They also might reflect:

The ability to turn in work regardless of its validity or not. A student who is good at completing worksheets would do well in a class where worksheets comprise a bulk of the grades.

The ability to turn in completed work in on time. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I make “timeliness” a component of all my assessments.

How much a student raised his/her hand.

How much a teacher likes a student.

Maybe even, on a given day, they’ll tell us if a teacher was in a good mood when they were grading a paper.

So what to make of all this?

Authentic assessments are the most valid kind of assessment we can give. Have your students show you their learning by doing something. Preferably something that matters. Have them

  • Start a business
  • Start a blog
  • Start a non-profit
  • Build something useful
  • Skype experts in the field
  • Write a travel guide
  • Plan a trip
  • Go on a trip

If it can’t be a real authentic assessment, make it as real a possible. Just the other day, while talking about poaching in Africa, I asked the kids to create an anti-poaching device using the free engineering software TinkerCad. It was probably the happiest they’d been all year. They were actually making something, not just doing another assignment.

A bonus of authentic assessment is that you’ll reach many, many kinds of learners, not just the kids who are good at memorizing.

I remember one 8th grade boy I had a few years back. I taught him for a few years. Great kid, but really struggled with school. Lots of meetings with parents. Lots of concen and worry. He wasn’t a great Social Studies student by any means, but he wasn’t dumb. He’s actually one of the smartest kids I know.

He could take apart, and put together, any mechanical device. This naturally manifested itself in a love of cars and engines. It’s all he would talk about. If your car died on a country road in a snowstorm, he’s the guy you hope would drive by.

Towards of the end of the 8th grade year he had struggled to a hard earned B. We were on a field trip, and I needed help building a fire pit on the beach. With smile on his face he jumped right into help me. Soon he was directing other kids and had half a dozen students merrily making a fire pit that we would later roast smores on.

It was then I felt so guilty. I had made this child struggle to complete my maps, write my papers, and do everything that was hard to do for him, when he was smart in so many other ways. Students like him are another argument for making our assessments less about who is good at school, and more about measuring real world skills.

High School
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