April 1, 2015
Online Journal - Assessment: What Does it Reflect?
Gail Wilton, Principal, Mamawi Atosketan Native School, Ponoka, AB

A trip to the emergency room with a kidney stone attack is not always the best way to spend an entire day, but sometimes necessity dictates.  One of the first things a doctor does is an assessment. A common assessment is, “On a scale from 1-10, how bad is the pain, 10 being the worst pain you have ever experienced?” From personal experience, I can say the response would probably be about 9. You are given medication to help relieve the pain and about 20 minutes later the doctor returns. The assessment is the same, but your response is different with pain now around 7.5. When the doctor returns for the third assessment, your pain level is about 4. The doctor then announces that he is going to admit you and schedule you for surgery because the average of his assessments is 6.8. Seriously?? That’s not the way it works in reality… or is it?
What about academic assessment? Consider how we, as educators, assess our students. When teaching a concept, we utilize a variety of multiple intelligences to connect the students’ learning with prior knowledge and extend it to everyday life experiences. We offer opportunities to practice, explore, and connect. We encourage them to step outside the box and become creative thinkers. “All of those Differentiated Instruction in-services are starting to pay off!”  We have learning centers in our classroom, “being there experiences” in the local community, and assignments that meet curriculum requirements. We have even created rubrics to help guide them toward achieving excellence. Our preparation, implementation and reflection indicate we are using “best practices.” Fantastic!
Then there is the report card. All assignments and tests are graded and entered. Now it’s time to meet with parents. One of my grade 4 students has a 62% in Math. Her parents would like an explanation of why her grade is so low. At home she appears to be doing so well. She knows her multiplication tables and works very well with fractions. 62% just doesn’t make sense to them. There is an explanation for that. Throughout the unit, especially at the beginning of the term, she really struggled with these concepts. There is evidence in the grade book making it easy to show them the grades for the 19 different assignments she had completed.
Encouragement is offered by pointing out where she eventually grasped the concept, because her grades increased immediately at that point. Unfortunately, it was late in the term when that happened. Her test grade for this unit was 87% so that should be comforting for them. This provides little comfort and they question further. How can that be? It just doesn’t make sense. Can she do extra assignments to increase her grade? Can she redo some of the earlier assignments that she didn’t understand the first time? I could inform them that the term has ended and there isn’t anything that can be done. I can create more assignments (because I’m such a dedicated teacher and truly want my students to succeed), or simply let her redo some assignments. If she already understands the concepts, what purpose would additional assignments serve? The reality, unfortunately, is that we often reflect practice rather than understanding on our report card grades.
Athletic coaches tell us they don’t keep score during practice. The purpose of practice time is to build skill. Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent. When we use practice work as part of the overall grade, students don’t step outside the box and teachers don’t get valuable information about student learning.
We encourage our students to practice and then grade them on their attempt. How accurately does our grading reflect what our students have actually learned?