How to Make Assessments Meaningful for Middle and High School Students

Assessment tips for middle and high school students

Students from around the ages of 11 to 16 are learning how to think critically and analyze information with greater depth, and teachers must determine how to effectively assess middle and high school students' learning in a way that acknowledges both their developmental strengths and challenges.

According to an article on adolescent literacy website, school staff should not underestimate the value of using literacy assessments to understand middle school students’ skill sets. Writing for Adlit, teacher and researcher Rafael Heller stated that elementary schools have rapidly embraced formative assessments designed to zero in on students' individual academic needs, while middle and high schools have been a bit slower to catch on. In Heller’s view, this is problematic because regular formative assessments can be an excellent way to help teachers learn more about why certain students are struggling, which helps guide instruction.

Along with whole-class discussions, brief quizzes and small-group work can be used to gauge student comprehension of and comfort with a given text or assignment. Beyond this, author and teacher Rob Riordan, who has worked closely with San Diego’s well regarded High Tech High, advises teachers to tap into self-directed work, which can be a good match with adolescents' growing need for independence. Riordan also asserted that it is essential to regard engagement as goal No. 1 when working with middle and high school students, because to put it simply, if kids are bored, they won't learn.

In an interview with Grace Rubenstein of Edutopia, Riordan spoke about how "engaging kids in work where they are pursuing their interests and passions, working in a community of learners, and seeing what is possible" is a great way to see what inspires and motivates them. High Tech High does this through exhibitions of student work during which teachers and students get to view, appreciate, and comment on students' projects and ideas. While academic assessments are an important foundation for student success, Riordan argued that helping students create "beautiful work of lasting value" also teaches them a sense of ownership and the value of collaborative exploration, along with other life skills.

Further, Riordan asserted that assessment of adolescents is most effective when it is not solely about content. In the days before technology put information at our fingertips, it made more sense for students to be tested on what they knew and were being taught. These days, we have a fast-moving economy, and kids' required knowledge is broader. "What they need to know now is how to access content, play with it, transform it, synthesize it, and use it, and how to work with others to do all of that," Riordan explained.

Fortunately, sites like the United States government’s Office of Educational Technology support this vision and offer a host of challenging and engaging assessments for educators to consider, such as the River City task developed by Harvard University researchers. This exercise drops students in a virtual 18th-century city where residents are mysteriously becoming ill and scientists are just beginning to discover bacteria. Students are tasked with working collectively to gather data, form hypotheses, and otherwise act like scientists before ultimately turning in their findings to the River City mayor via a written report.

The benefits of using such project- and collaboration-based assessments include the creation of a buzzing classroom full of students engaged in teamwork and inquiry. When working with middle and high school students, this type of assessment is not only developmentally appropriate but has the potential to ignite a long-lasting creative spark.

For more helpful assessment and classroom instruction tips, subscribe to the Lexia blog at the top of the page to receive a biweekly roundup directly to your inbox. 

Bonus resource:  9 Amazing Benefits of Technology in the Classroom (+18 Best Ways to Incorporate Technology)
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