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Assessment – To Beside and Observe
I recently came across a blog post stating something that seems logical and useful. Before we start working with students to improve their math performance, it was noted that we need to test them to know what areas to focus on. A quick internet search confirmed this. A number of sites discussed different types of assessment: diagnostic or pre-assessment, formative or ongoing assessment, and summative or post-assessment. But when looking for examples of each, continuous formative assessment received less attention compared to more examples of diagnostic and summative tests.
It reminded me of when I made a presentation before a state agenda adoption committee. I explained that since my company writes intervention materials designed to help struggling students in math, formative assessment is built into the structure of every lesson in the program. Although there are pre-, post- and mid-chapter tests, the emphasis is on providing problem-solving support for these students in continuous formative assessment. A committee member laughed and said, “Well, that requires good teaching!”
It seems like everyone in the room recognizes that good evaluation is systematic and ongoing. But several committee members saw repeat testing as the way to ensure ongoing evaluation.
I won’t go into possible reasons for the apparent preference for testing. On the contrary, in this article, I want to expose some problems related to the use of tests as the main means of assessment, especially for students who have difficulties with mathematics.
Going back to the opening paragraph, diagnosis or prior assessment is essential. We are flying blind without it. But prioritizing testing over built-in continuous assessment can miss out on some of the potential power and value of assessment and even create some of the very problems that our best teaching attempts to address.
Students who do not do well may not give us the best indication of what they know and can do by taking another test. Continuing to write incorrect answers can reinforce memories of those incorrect answers, reinforce faulty procedures leading to incorrect answers, and reinforce partially understood or misunderstood concepts. Having to leave some answers blank can reinforce a negative self-image, as well as frustration and resistance to studying math. It also means that the necessary practice on these issues is missed. When the test is graded by the teacher and returned later, students are no longer engaged with the problems and many will not retrace their steps to arrive at the wrong answers.
Assessment has multiple uses for the teacher and the student. This gives the teacher evidence of student preparation and performance, which informs what needs to be taught and how best to approach it. It also provides feedback to students. Although testing is essential, should it be the primary form of feedback for the intervention teacher? The teacher may not know from a test what problems the students worked on or solved quickly whether they were successful or not. The test may not reveal which conceptual, procedural, or simple nomenclature deficiencies led to an incorrect answer. Depending on when a test is administered, it may be too late to go back and fix some issues. And because of all that, it may not be the best form of feedback for students who struggle with math, either.
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