Partnering with Students to Reduce Assessment Stress
Assessments are a hot topic in today’s data-driven education culture. Even veteran educators are learning new and different ways to assess their students, compile data, and use that information to guide their teaching. However, as educators, administrators, and policymakers put their heads together to create more efficient and effective testing strategies, one important group stands out as the most crucial players in the assessment process: the students themselves.
In an Educational Leadership article titled Assessment Through the Student’s Eyes, Rick Stiggins wrote, “Students' thoughts and actions regarding assessment results are at least as important as those of adults.” Stiggins went on to explain that while students may feel that assessment results mark them as “winners” or “losers,” assessments are truly about helping every student recognize who they are as a learner.
Ensuring that students buy in to the assessment process is no easy task. While educators and other professionals may have years of experience giving and grading assessments, students are learning it all for the first time. With this in mind, we need to partner with students before, during, and after assessments to help them understand the process. What is the purpose of each type of assessment? How will the data from the test results be used? And, perhaps most importantly: Why are students being tested?
Explain types of assessments
As educators know firsthand, there are many different types of assessments, ranging from formal to informal and standardized to teacher-directed. Perhaps the most important distinction for students to understand is the difference between formative assessments and summative assessments.
Teacher-created formative assessments are designed to gather data that will help educators guide future learning. In simplistic terms, formative assessments focus on present and future learning. These assessments help students understand what they know currently and what they need to learn next. Comprehension checks, self-assessments, daily learning journals, and thinking maps are all examples of formative assessments.
Summative assessments, by contrast, measure the student’s mastery of the material and assign a grade for their performance. In other words, if formative assessments look to the present and future, summative assessments are all about the past. Unit tests, standardized tests, and end-of-semester projects are all typical summative assessments.
Knowing the difference between these two types of tests can ease a lot of anxiety for students—and help them understand their own learning process, too. The data uncovered in formative assessments shows what students know and what they need to know. Imagine how a formative assessment can boost the confidence of a student who discovers she’s more knowledgeable about a topic than she knew. For a student who feels he is struggling, the data from a formative assessment can give him a starting point for review and reteaching.
Understanding the value of summative assessments is useful for students, too. There are times when it’s crucial to pinpoint what material the students actually know, in addition to how well they know it. For example, a driver’s license test is a very important summative assessment. It’s interesting to track how much a teenager has practiced driving and how much they’ve improved on shifting gears—but before they’re licensed to drive, we need to be sure they’ve mastered the skills!
Review assessment purpose before every test
Although we educators are well-versed in data collection and analysis, our students are still learning the “why” and “how” of testing. Before every assessment, quickly check in with students to reinforce what type of assessment it is, why they are taking it, and how the data will be used to help them.
“On Friday, we will have a 10-question quiz on the information in this chapter. This is a comprehension check to see how much you understand. I’m going to use this information to see whether we are ready to move on to the next chapter or if we need more review.”
“Today, I’m asking you to rate how confident you feel about each subject that will be covered on next month’s standardized tests. I’m asking you to do this so that I know your perspective on your own learning. I’m going to use your answers to decide how to best support you in our last month of studying before the big test.”
“Tomorrow is our portfolio review for the quarter. I’m going to be checking your folders to see how your understanding of the material has progressed over the last few months. I will use this data to calculate your quarterly grade.”
By reviewing this information with students before each assessment, we show them that we are their partners in learning. We also eliminate stress that could be caused by confusion, such as a student worrying that a quick self-assessment will be a factor in their overall grade.
We also empower students to understand the purpose of assessments and take charge of their own performance. As Stiggins noted, “The goal of assessment for learning is not to eliminate failure, but rather to keep failure from becoming chronic and thus inevitable in the mind of the learner.” When students understand how their learning is being measured and are given the tools to improve their learning, they are able to approach difficult tasks with the confidence that they can improve.
Show how assessment data improves student learning
Educators can use assessment data in many different ways, from measuring progress to gauging student confidence and determining proficiency to discovering potential. However, from a student’s perspective, the way that educators derive this information from tests can seem downright mysterious.
Take regular opportunities to show students how you collect and use data from their assessments. While calculating the number of correct responses on a summative assessment might be fairly self-explanatory, formative assessments may be more difficult to understand. For instance, if you use a self-assessment model to determine student learning styles, show students an example and explain how you use the data from the assessment to decide how to present new material.
Similarly, involve students in tracking their own progress. If you use edtech to take and record assessment data, give the students a peek at their own results. If you deliver the final grades from a summative assessment, give students time to look at how they answered the questions and think about why they got an item right or wrong. While you may not be planning to cover the material again, examining their own successes and failures gives students an opportunity to identify what works and how they can improve.
Although the education community frequently discusses the ways in which assessment data can be useful for educators and other professionals, we need to stay focused on the population that assessments were designed to serve. Students themselves need information on both formative and summative assessments to truly become partners in their education journey. With the data to show where they are now—and the tools to see how they can improve—students will begin to see that assessments are a critical component of their success.
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