Assessment of Student Performance

Russell Yates

April, 2000

Teachers most often use assessment to obtain information that helps them improve their instruction. This in turn helps them to bridge the gap between curriculum standards and student achievement. Assessment is also used for accountability purposes, for both students and teachers. Classrooms are made up of a diversity of learners and so to help them make appropriate instructional decisions and to provide valid information for accountability, teachers use a wide variety of assessments. This is evident in all the literature reviewed by the writer as well as interviews of teachers performed by the author.

Assessment information can be used in three different ways: to give the teacher and student information that will allow them to improve student learning, to help with selection decisions for educational options, and to provide accountability at a number of levels. Although it seems when reading a newspaper or watching the television news that the main role of assessment is to judge how well a school is performing as a part of educational reform, the more important use for assessment is to help the teacher improve student learning (Diez 1997).

Feedback about student achievement can help the teacher reflect on instructional methods used and help plan the next educational steps to take. In fact, without the information gained from valid and reliable assessments, an instructional program can not be responsive to the needs of the students. Assessment information allows the teacher to find out whether their instruction is helping students meet criteria of mastery or make acceptable progress along academic continuums. Veteran first grade teacher Debbi Beckhorn states "...(I have) seen many changes in the arena of assessment and monitoring of student progress. More and more, it seems, we need to 'check in' with students more frequently in order to carefully lead them in their next step in the learning process. I use a variety of assessment tools to 'dip in' to a student's progress..."(Beckhorn, 2000) For this first grade teacher, the use of assessment information helps her make instructional decisions, allowing her to guide her students' progress along academic continuums. This use of assessment as information can be seen at all levels of the K-12 system. Joanne Schmitt, a high school mathematics teacher uses formal assessments in this way on a weekly basis. "At least once a week, I give a short quiz to get a more formal assessment of (students') progress. From the results ... I judge whether or not I need to reteach and/or give more practice on concepts." (Schmitt, 2000)

While developing this paper, the author discovered that including students in the instructional decision process through the use of assessment information changes with the age of the students. The first grade teacher quoted above made all the instructional decisions that were based on the assessment information. The high school mathematics teacher on the other hand provided frequent performance feedback directly to her students so that they could modify their personal approach to learning the material. This shows a sort of cooperative attitude between the students and the teacher when negotiating curriculum.

One of the most important aspects of my assessment is that I give the students WEEKLY feedback on their grades, so that they have the opportunity to see exactly where they are weak and can improve. Most of my students feel this is very important and will "get on my case" if I slack off on my record keeping. I also require that they keep a written, running account of what they have turned in, because I freely admit that I am human and can (and do) make mistakes when entering records into the computer. This gives them a feeling of empowerment and helps to make them understand that in the long run, they are responsible for the grades they earn (Schmitt, 2000).

The last portion of the statement also shows that teachers use assessment for more than just getting sound information in order to make instructional decisions. Teachers also use assessment for accountability reasons, to help students be accountable for their learning. Apart from guiding instructional decisions, a newer role that is forming for assessment is that of determining instruction. State high-stakes test results are doing this because teachers feel "...administrative pressure to teach to the test..." (Bol, Stephenson, & Nunnery, 1998) Whether this improves student achievement has yet to be established.

Assessments can be placed in two categories, alternative assessments and traditional assessments. Alternative assessments include observations, performance assessments, student self-assessments, and portfolios. Traditional assessments include both standardized and classroom achievement tests with predominately selection type questions (Bol, Stephenson, & Nunnery, 1998). Classrooms are diverse collections of children and learning is a complex process. In order to provide valid and usable information, assessment needs to be given in a variety of ways, using both traditional and alternative methods. A fourth grade teacher, Fred Akins, is representative of this. The assessments he uses for both instructional decision making and accountability include both paper-and-pencil tests and performance assessments. The assessment tools he uses include observations, rubrics, text-book unit assessments, analytical reading inventories, timed tests, reading interviews, and the Washington Assessment of Student Learning standardized test(Akins, 2000). Both the first grade and the high school teacher interviewed by the author also included a wide variety of assessment tools that include traditional and alternative assessments. This is also reflective of what Mertler (1999), Bol, Stephenson, and Nunnery (1998) found.

...the frequency with which teachers used traditional methods of assessments was not associated with the frequency with which they used alternative assessments. The absence of a negative correlation between the variables implies that teachers tend to use both methods of assessment in their classrooms, rather than using traditional or alternative methods as their dominant means of student assessment(Bol, Stephenson, & Nunnery, 1998).

This makes sense because, as has been written, "Given the diversity of achievement
targets ... it becomes obvious that no single assessment method is capable of reflecting them all." (Stiggins, 1995) In other words, student achievements such as the memorization of multiplication facts are best measured by assessment methods such as a traditional paper-and-pencil achievement test, it doesn't make sense to create a portfolio based entirely on math facts mastered (although it could be done). With other modes of learning, alternative assessment methods provide better information. For instance a writing product can be assessed through the use of a scoring rubric, likely providing more valid information for both instructional and accountability purposes than a multiple choice test would. In fact, "...performance-based assessment provides teachers with information about how the student understands and applies knowledge" and this can't be done as well with most traditional forms of testing (Brualdi, 1999).

Students attend school to learn and teachers' main purpose is to guide them in this endeavor. Because of this, although there are other legitimate reasons for assessment, obtaining information about student achievement in order to guide instruction is the most important one. When used in this way, instruction improves and more closely meets the needs of the individual child, student learning is enhanced, and teachers will be better able to bridge that gap between student achievement and curriculum standards. The learning process is complex and educational targets are diverse, so that a wide variety of assessment tools are needed to get the appropriate information. If we truly believe that all children have a right and an ability to learn, then we need to keep the most important use of assessment in its place. Information to better meet the learning needs of our children must be the top priority of assessment.

Assessment is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end: classroom decision making (Airasian p 364, 1997).


Akins, Fred (2000). [Assessment interview, Chimacum Intermediate School]. Unpublished interview (3/27/00).

Airasian, Peter W. (1997) Classroom Assessment, Third Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Beckhorn, Debbi (2000). [Assessment interview, Chimacum Creek Primary School]. Unpublished interview (3/22/00).

Bol, Linda.; Stephenson, Patricia L. Nunnery, John A. (1998) Influence of experience, grade level, and subject area on teachers' assessment practices. The Journal of Educational Research Washington, D.C. v. 91 no6, p. 323-30. (online) Available: Eric FirstSearch, (3/20/00)

Brualdi, Amy (1999). Performance-based Assessment: How Students Understand and Apply Knowledge. Schools in the Middle 9 no4 22-5 D. (online) Available: WilsonWeb, (4/2/00).

Diez, Mary E. (1997). Assessment as a lever in education reform. The Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi: Celebration of Excellence, National Forum, Winter 1997 v77 n1 p27(4). (online) Available: Expanded Academic ASAP, (3/25/00).

Mertler, Craig A. (1999). Assessing Student Performance: A Descriptive Study Of The Classroom Assessment Practices Of Ohio Teachers. Education, Winter 1999 v120 i2 p285. (online) Available: Expanded Academic ASAP, (3/25/00).

Schmitt, Joanne. (2000). [Assessment interview, Chimacum High School]. Unpublished interview (4/1/00).

Stiggins, Richard J. (1995) Assessment literacy for the 21st century. Phi Delta Kappan, Nov 1995 v77 n3 p238(8). (online) Available: Expanded Academic ASAP, (3/25/00).

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