Student Assessments: How to Choose

Assessing our students is more important than ever, especially post-pandemic. We need to know what they understand and what they missed, in order to know where to begin teaching. Even under normal circumstances, good teaching almost always starts with assessing what your students know and what concepts you can build upon.

However, choosing appropriate student assessments can be overwhelming. It’s hard to know if something will meet your needs or be too stressful for your students, or even be accurate. Here are my tips on how to choose assessments that will help you plan your instruction and help your students grow as learners.

Make sure you’re assessing the right things.

Choose assessments that are aligned to the standards you’re teaching. A lot of assessments out there are labeled as standards-aligned, or tag standards in their listings. But, do they actually match the content of the standards being addressed? If teachers take old content and just relabel it, maybe not. Or, sometimes the focus is more on being ‘cute’ rather than providing rigorous content and practicality. Make sure to use assessments that were designed specifically for the standards. Good assessments should start from the concepts students are learning, and then design questions from there.

How do you know if an assessment really aligns to the content? Take a close look at one or two of the questions. Choose a standard you know fairly well. Look at the questions that are allegedly aligned to that standard. Does the content seem to match up? Could a student get the right answer without actually knowing the content? Is there an opportunity to show partial understanding of the concept?

Provide options and differentiation:

If possible, allow students to choose the format that works best for them. The math assessments I created and used come with three versions. There’s a stylish, cute version that feels more fun and that kids can color. Then, a kid-friendly digital version that’s more engaging and shows only one concept at a time. Plus, there’s a cleaner version that lets students focus more on the content and less on the design.

Sometimes less really is more.

It can be really tempting to look for an assessment that has a lot of questions for each standard. The problem with that is that students might get tired and start to make mistakes, which would defeat the entire purpose of doing the assessment. I always try to fit all of the questions for one single standard on one page. One page makes it so much easier to assess individual standards. It also just makes paper management and grading/ report cards/ portfolios so much simpler. Plus, sometimes you only need to assess one specific standard, so having things all on one page makes it easy to pull out only the questions you need.

Use assessments that help students grow.

Assessments can actually empower kids, instead of just being stressful. Look for assessments that provide an opportunity for students to show partial understanding.

Consider allowing for support, even during assessments.

Maybe not every single question on a student assessment has to be completed 100% on their own. Sometimes, you can gain a lot more information by seeing what a student can almost do, or what they can do with a little bit of help.

Especially when I was using assessments as test prep, I encouraged students to ask for help if they got stuck on a question. To keep track of what they were able to do on their own versus with support, I included self-check at the bottom of each page. The students could check off if they completed the page on their own, with a little help, or with a lot of help. It’s a good way to track student learning as they progress towards independence. But not only that, it allows for flexibility and helps develop a growth mindset. Students see that learning isn’t always black and white/ right or wrong. There’s room for almost getting it and for making an effort that gets you halfway there.

Look for ways to track progress.

It’s SO satisfying when you can check something off your list, right? And, kids love that feeling too. Students love the feeling of knowing they can now do something they couldn’t do before. I always tried to provide them concrete ways to track their learning. It’s a big part of teaching growth mindset, too.

One way my students track their progress is by coloring in the standards and recording the date when they demonstrate proof of mastery. I made these cute pages for their student portfolios. They were able to color in the standards as they mastered them, and they loved seeing their own progress. Especially in the upper elementary grades, it really helped my students take more control over their own learning and become more proactive in working towards their academic goals.

Think about how you’ll be marking the assessments:

An item analysis is one of the best ways to see where you can focus your instruction to best help your students. I always just used a basic spreadsheet or checklist with all of the students names down the left side. (I just made one at the beginning of the year and then copied and reused it.) Across the top, I put one column for each question. For questions that had partial credit, I might use two columns, so I could see if which students had a least some understanding.

Then, as I marked the assessments, I’d use a check/ + / – / 0 notation to mark their level of understanding on each item. If you color code it as well, it becomes easier to see which questions you need to reteach as a whole class because the majority of students were confused. If there are questions or concepts that only a few students missed, that’s a great opportunity for a small group or center activity aimed at only those particular students.

Multiple choice, true/false, and short answers are easy to check, but don’t give you as much information. It’s always good to find student assessments that have a good balance of short and longer answers and problem solving. That way, you get a more well-rounded idea of what your students know.

Happy Teaching (& Assessing!)

Chris Cadalzo

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