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Saturday, 9 November 2013

Key Concepts in Assessing Students

image credits: Muskegon Community College
For teachers and curriculum designers carefully constructed learner assessment techniques can help determining whether or not the stated goals are being achieved. Classroom assessment can help teachers answer the following specific questions:
To what extent are my students achieving the stated goals?
How should I allocate class time for the current topic?
Can I teach this topic in a more efficient or effective way?
What parts of this unit are my students finding most valuable?
How will I change this unit the next time I teach it?
Which grades do I assign my students?
Meanwhile, for students, learner assessment answers a different set of questions:
Do I know what my teacher thinks is most important?
Am I mastering the unit content?
How can I improve the way I study English?
What grade am I earning in this subject?

Explaining the importance of assessment, Brissenden and Slater state that assessment is important because it drives students learning. Whether we like it or not, most students tend to focus their energies on the best or most expeditious way to pass their ‘tests.’ Based on this knowledge, we can use our assessment strategies to manipulate the kinds of learning that takes place. For example, assessment strategies that focus predominantly on recall of knowledge will likely promote superficial learning. On the other hand, if we choose assessment strategies that demand critical thinking or creative problem-solving, we are likely to realize a higher level of student performance or achievement. In addition, good assessment can help students become more effective self-directed learners.
As indicated above, motivating and directing learning is only one purpose of assessment. Well-designed assessment strategies also play a critical role in educational decision-making and are a vital component of ongoing quality improvement processes at the lesson, course and/or curriculum level.

To ensure our comprehension on assessment, here are some important concepts in assessment:

1. Formative and Summative Assessment
Formative assessment aims to inform ongoing teaching and learning by providing immediate feedback. A teacher who assesses pupils’ understanding of a listening text and uses the outcomes to change her plan and give more practice before moving on to a speaking activity, is carrying out formative assessment. Ideally, formative assessment should influence both teaching and learning by giving feedback to both teacher and learner. Summative assessment, on the other hand, aims to asses learning at the end of a unit, term, year, or course, and does not feed back into the next round of teaching.

2. Diagnostic and Achievement Assessment
Many assessment activities provide both formative and summative information, but it is helpful to be clear as to the primary purpose and one of an assessment because this can affect what kind of information the activity needs to produce. It is fundamental to highlight the distinction between assessing achievement, i.e. what a learner can do, and diagnostic assessment that aims to establish what a child can and can not yet do, so that further learning opportunities can be provided.

3. Criterion-referenced and Norm-referenced Assessment
If we assess learner’s achievement, we can produce a ranking of learners which says that child X has learnt more than child Y and less that child Z; this would be norm-referenced. Alternatively, we can compare a learner’s performance, not to other learners, but to a set of criteria of expected performance or learning targets. Criterion-referenced assesment can match the child’s performance against an expected response on an item, or it may make use of a set of descriptors along a scale, on which a learner is placed.

4. Validity
The concepts of validity and reliability are used to describe the technical quality of assessment practices. They are more often applied to testing, although are also important in alternative assessment. Validity is more important, particularly in alternative assessment, and concerns how far an assesment assesses what it claims to. If a test does not measure what it claims to, then there are clearly dangers in using it.

5. Reliability
Reliability measures how well a test or assessment assesses what it claims to: would the assessment produce the same results if it were taken by the same pupils on different occasions, or if the same test or assesment was scored by different people? (Gipps and Stobart, 1993).
Validity and reliability can be conflicting needs for assessment techniques and procedures. The most reliable assessments will be pencil and paper tests in which each item measures only a single aspect of a skill and which give each testee a numerical mark. But the most valid assessments will be on those that collect a lot of information about performance on several aspects of a skill. When validity increased, reliability decreased.


Types and Approaches to Assessment

Numerous terms are used to describe different types and approaches to learner assessment. Although somewhat arbitrary, it is useful to these various terms as representing dichotomous poles:
Formative <---------------------------------> Summative
Informal <---------------------------------> Formal
Continuous <----------------------------------> Final
Process <---------------------------------> Product
Divergent <---------------------------------> Convergent

1. Formative vs. Summative Assessment
Formative assessment is designed to assist the learning process by providing feedback to the learner, which can be used to identify strengths and weakness and hence improve future performance. Formative assessment is most appropriate where the results are to be used internally by those involved in the learning process.
Summative assessment is used primarily to make decisions for grading or determine readiness for progression. Typically summative assessment occurs at the end of an educational activity and is designed to judge the learner’s overall performance.

2. Informal vs. Formal Assessment
With informal assessment, the judgments are integrated with other tasks, e.g., lecturer feedback on the answer to a question. Informal assessment is most often used to provide formative feedback. As such, it tends to be less threatening and thus less stressful to the student. However, informal feedback is prone to high subjectivity or bias.
Formal assessment occurs when students are aware that the task that they are doing is for assessment purposes, e.g., a written examination. Most formal assessments also are summative in nature and thus tend to have greater motivation impact and are associated with increased stress. Given their role in decision-making, formal assessments should be held to higher standards of reliability and validity than informal assessments.

3. Continuous vs. Final Assessment
Continuous assessment occurs throughout a learning experience (intermittent is probably a more realistic term). Continuous assessment is most appropriate when student and/or instructor knowledge of progress or achievement is needed to determine the subsequent progression or sequence of activities. Continuous assessment provides both students and teachers with the information needed to improve teaching and learning in process. Obviously, continuous assessment involves increased effort for both teacher and student. Final (or terminal) assessment is that which takes place only at the end of a learning activity. It is most appropriate when learning can only be assessed as a complete whole rather than as constituent parts. Typically, final assessment is used for summative decision-making.

4. Process vs. Product Assessment
Process assessment focuses on the steps or procedures underlying a particular ability or task, i.e., the cognitive steps in performing a mathematical operation. Because it provides more detailed information, process assessment is most useful when a student is learning a new skill and for providing formative feedback to assist in improving performance.
Product assessment focuses on evaluating the result or outcome of a process. Using the above example, we would focus on the answer to the math computation. Product assessment is most appropriate for documenting proficiency or competency in a given skill, i.e., for summative purposes.

5. Divergent vs. Convergent Assessment
Divergent assessments are those for which a range of answers or solutions might be considered correct. Divergent assessments tend to be more authentic and most appropriate in evaluating higher cognitive skills. However, these types of assessment are often time consuming to evaluate and the resulting judgments often exhibit poor reliability. A convergent assessment has only one correct response (per item). Objective test items are the best example and demonstrate the value of this approach in assessing knowledge. Obviously, convergent assessments are easier to evaluate or score than divergent assessments. Unfortunately, this “ease of use” often leads to their widespread application of this approach even when contrary to good assessment practices.

Assessment Principles
What principles will provide the most essential, fundamental "structure" of assessment knowledge and skills that result in effective educational practices and improved student learning? McMillan (2000) tries to elaborate the principles as follows:

1. Assessment is inherently a process of professional judgment.
2. Assessment is based on separate but related principles of measurement evidence and evaluation.
3. Assessment decision-making is influenced by a series of tensions.
4. Assessment influences student motivation and learning.
5. Assessment contains error.
6. Good assessment enhances instruction.
7. Good assessment is valid.
8. Good assessment is fair and ethical.
9. Good assessments use multiple methods.
10. Good assessment is efficient and feasible.
11. Good assessment appropriately incorporates technology.

Testing: Why and How

Testing is certainly not the only way to assess students, but there are many good reasons for including a test in our language course:
1. A test can give the teacher valuable information about where the students are in their learning and can affect what the teacher will cover next. They will help a teacher to decide if her teaching has been effective and help to highlight what needs to be reviewed. Testing can be as much an assessment of the teaching as the learning
2. Tests can give students a sense of accomplishment as well as information about what they know and what they need to review.
3. Tests can also have a positive effect in that they encourage students to review material covered on the course.

However, sometimes testing doesn't work and we could find many arguments against using tests as a form of assessment:
1. Some students become so nervous that they can't perform and don't give a true account of their knowledge or ability
2. Other students can do well with last-minute cramming despite not having worked throughout the course
3. Once the test has finished, students can just forget all that they had learned
4. Students become focused on passing tests rather than learning to improve their language skills.

Frost (2004) admits that using only tests as a basis for assessment has obvious drawbacks. They are 'one-off' events that do not necessarily give an entirely fair account of a student's proficiency. As we have already mentioned, some people are more suited to them than others. There are other alternatives that can be used instead of or alongside tests.
1. Continuous assessment
Teachers give grades for a number of assignments over a period of time. A final grade is decided on a combination of assignments.
2. Portfolio
A student collects a number of assignments and projects and presents them in a file. The file is then used as a basis for evaluation.
3. Self-assessment
The students evaluate themselves. The criteria must be carefully decided upon beforehand.
4. Teacher's assessment
The teacher gives an assessment of the learner for work done throughout the course including classroom contributions.

To summarize, what is most essential about assessment is understanding how general, fundamental assessment principles and ideas can be used to enhance student learning and teacher effectiveness. This will be achieved as teachers and administrators learn about conceptual and technical assessment concepts, methods, and procedures, for both large-scale and classroom assessments, and apply these fundamentals to instruction. Finally, the comprehension on the assessment principles will guide the assessment training and professional development of teachers and administrators to run more productive assessment. 

By Agustina Djihadi, found @ A Journey Called Life Blog

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