What Should Assessments Look Like in a Pandemic and Beyond?
This past spring, as our living rooms turned into classrooms, we shifted our teaching, learning new technologies such as Trello boards and Kahoot and creating Bitmoji classrooms to engage our students. One question we all struggled with was how to assess our students authentically in this less-than- ideal teaching and learning environment. Teachers were challenged to find other ways of tracking how much their students understand.
The limitations they faced opened the door to more meaningful and different ways of assessing students’ progress that could remain even when in-person classes resume. Some schools created a new grading policy that essentially eliminated classic high-stakes summative assessments. Many teachers became creative and focused on formative assessments and group projects.
But the questions remained: What could and should assessments look like while the pandemic is still raging, and then when we are in a post-pandemic world? This time period has had many of us asking ourselves, Why do we assess in general?
These were questions that might have been asked before the pandemic hit, but Covid-19 has brought them to the fore. In every crisis there is an opportunity to learn and improve. We have become a society that is grade-obsessed and metric-obsessed, so that assessments have become more about the number than about mastery of content and skills. Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to rethink and perhaps make some long-lasting changes to our testing systems. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, if we ask ourselves some basic questions, we may arrive at an assessment that works in our school culture and in our classrooms for now and in the future.
When we think about assessments in general and in particular now, we need to ask ourselves a series of questions. First, what are we teaching? For most of us, this is easy: While we are teaching specific content, we are really teaching the students in front of us, whether they are in person or learning remotely. These students deserve to have clarity on and what we are teaching, what they need to know and be able to do when they complete our course. I am a strong advocate of standards- based learning, which can often help in creating meaningful assessments for our students. Our standards may be about teaching topic sentences, solving complex problems or asking questions.
Second, why are we teaching? I believe we are teaching to expose our students to the world and to pique their curiosity. Even if our students think they do not need to know certain topics or information, there may be material that inspires them. There is important content knowledge for them to learn and understand. We need to convey to the students the importance of learning different topics and opening their minds to new ideas and new ways to think about the world around them.
We are teaching our students to help them gain skills. Sometimes those skills are tangible: Can I add or subtract? What is photosynthesis? What is a topic sentence? Sometimes the skills are less tangible: Can I work equitably in a group? Can I respect the opinions of others who disagree with me? Can I think critically about the topic in front of me?
We are also teaching our students because we love what we do. We want to forge healthy relationships with our students to inspire them, to help them find their passions just as we have found ours.
When we can clearly articulate to ourselves why we are teaching and what we are teaching—content, skills and inspiration—we then need to ask ourselves why we are assessing. Is it to prepare our students to be able to take standardized exams?
Standardized exams have become the staple of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, two attempts to improve education in the United States. But standardized exams have had notorious problems, and the focus has shifted from learning content and skills to test-taking. This year when our world changed, many states canceled their standardized tests and colleges went either “test blind” or “test optional” for the SAT and ACT exams.
Are our assessments part of the learning process? There are many times when our assessments are spitback; students need to memorize facts and then write them down. They may show us they know how to memorize, but what have they really demonstrated? Knowing facts and dates are very important, but there are better ways to assess mastery of this information.
The term assessment has its root in the Latin word assidere, which means to sit beside. In a recent podcast, Stamford Senior Lecturer Denise Pope discussed the purpose of assessments. She described it as a way to help students understand what they know and what they don’t know and get them to the point of knowing. When we plan for assessments, we need to keep in mind our why and make that clear to the students.
DIFFERENT TYPES OF ASSESSMENTS
Once we and our students have clarity on what and why we are teaching and why we are assessing, we can begin to think about the most impactful assessments for our students. What type of assessments should and could we be administering?
Assessments should require students to utilize their prior knowledge in order to construct an answer or product, instead of simply selecting from multiple-choice options. They may include open-ended questions, opportunities for student voice, student self-reflection, creative-thinking tasks, creative use of a variety of media to demonstrate student learning, student choice in the execution of the final product, open dialogue or discussions or peer-review of material.
In A Teacher’s Guide to Standards-Based Learning, the authors present three types of meaningful assessments. The first is obtrusive assessment, which interrupts the learning process by administering a test; students are aware that a classroom event is happening. There are multiple ways this exam can be constructed. This is the way that many of us have tested our students in the past. This type of assessment can have value at the conclusion of a unit.
A different type of assessment, which they call “unobtrusive,” can include think-pair-share (a form of collaborative problem solving), journal entries or teacher-student conferences. Short, frequent formative assessments can be very informative for the teachers and students, and can help both parties garner useful data about student performance.
The third type is student-generated assessment. This is an opportunity for students to think about how he or she wants to demonstrate understanding of the content or mastery of a skill. Students have choice and voice in assessments. Assessments can be part of the ongoing dialogue that we have with our students in our classes. This may not be a comfortable form of assessment for teachers who have not used it in the past, but it may increase engagement of students as they feel they are a part of the process and have ownership over their decision.
ASSESSMENT OPTIONS WE CAN USE NOW
As the pandemic continues and we are remote, in person or hybrid, what are the best types of assessments that work for our learning environment? Zoom fatigue was a well-documented phenomenon last spring, and for those students who have returned to school, mask fatigue has begun to set in. Assessments need to be short and meaningful for students who may have a more limited ability to focus due to the realities of their learning environments.
One form of an assessment that can be effective is short exit tickets, completed by students at the end of class or soon after. Questions can check for understanding or have students apply what they learned to new scenarios. I found those particularly effective in my classroom in the spring during remote learning. The students were given a few minutes to answer questions.
These formative assessments provided feedback both to me and to my students. After reading them over, I had a clear understanding of what my students had grasped in the lesson.
In this way, I could craft my lesson plan for the next day, reviewing and potentially re-explaining material, or if the class understood I could build on the students’ knowledge and go to the next level of learning. My students were giving me feedback about my teaching and how I needed to teach to enable them to learn well. More importantly, exit tickets provided feedback to my students from me. When my students answered the questions and saw my responses, they understood what they knew and what they had yet to master in our classroom learning. This is a practice that I have continued as we have returned to in-person learning.
There are many different types of technology that are available for individual or interactive assessments. For example, Flipgrid gives students a prompt to answer, and then other students can comment. This platform can reveal what the students know and what they have not yet grasped.
Another modality, authentic assessment, assesses students’ abilities in contexts that closely resemble actual situations in which those abilities are used. In ELA, for example, authentic assessments ask students to read real texts, to write for authentic purposes about meaningful topics, and to participate in authentic literacy tasks such as discussing books, keeping journals, writing letters and revising a piece of writing until it works for the reader. In Talmud class, students might be challenged to apply the concepts studied in class to a particular scenario. Both the material and the assessment tasks look as natural as possible.
Authentic assessment values the thinking behind work, the process, as much as the finished product. Students demonstrate mastery over the material by applying their understanding to other situations. These assessments don’t have to be long and can be performed in a classroom or remotely. At a time when students may have more difficulty focusing due to being remote or mask wearing, this type of assessment may encourage them to be more engaged.
The most important takeaway from our experience as educators during Covid-19 is the ability to be open to new forms of teaching and assessment. We can move away from the classic summative exam, where students sit with a pen and paper, and answer questions for long periods of time. We can use technology for exams, infuse creativity in our tests and try different types of assessments that we might not have tried in the past. By doing so, we instill in our students the knowledge that there are multiple ways to approach learning.