The word “assessment” derives from a Latin word meaning “to sit beside.” This root meaning conjures an image of what effective assessment looks like—a teacher sitting next to a student to discuss his or her work, review progress of drafts and suggest next steps. Ultimately, teachers judge and give value (or “grade”) to student work relative to a predetermined standard. This is the “evaluation” portion of the equation. As complementary processes, assessment and evaluation allow students to practice, refine, reflect on and demonstrate what they know and can do.
Effective schools use authentic assessment practices—such as portfolios, exhibitions and project-based products. These experiences give students and teachers frequent opportunities to gauge strengths and weaknesses and reflect on what is working (and not working) in the classroom. The result is that assessment and evaluation become learning opportunities that provide students and teachers dynamic measures of progress toward their goals.
In order for authentic assessment to be effective, teaching must be structured to give students the chance to succeed. For example, if students are asked to create a portfolio, they need opportunities to regularly revise their work, receive feedback, and become self-reliant learners through scaffolding and coaching. To make these elements part of regular classroom practice, teachers need a schedule that allows for collaboration and powerful teaching and learning. Unlike most schools, successful small schools have the flexibility and autonomy to ensure assessment and evaluation are part of the fabric of the learning experience rather than an after thought intended only to sort and categorize students.
Components of an effective assessment and evaluation system include:
- Opportunities for formative and summative feedback. Assessment and evaluation serve two complementary functions that are accomplished by providing students with two types of feedback. Formative feedback helps students reflect on how they learn, understand and enhance areas of strength, pinpoint and correct areas of weakness, and plan next steps for revision and improvement. Summative feedback is a final evaluation of demonstrated achievement. To be successful, students need opportunities for both kinds of feedback as each play a different role in students’ understanding of the value of what they are learning. In formative feedback the ongoing, back-and-forth dialogue between teachers and students about evolving drafts of work engages students in defining the direction and progress of their efforts. Eventually, however, summative feedback provides students recognition for the sum of their efforts. Both types of feedback help teachers to personalize learning. Through regular conversations with students about their work and progress, teachers gain insights into students’ motivations, interests and perspectives. Knowing students well through the way they present and talk about their work provides valuable opportunities for teachers to help students assume greater responsibility for their learning.
- Rubrics. Rubrics articulate the set of standards against which students’ work and performance are judged; they paint a picture of quality work. Teachers commonly use rubrics in scoring and grading (summative evaluation), but rubrics also play an important role in instruction (formative assessment). Teachers can include students in the development of a rubric. This ensures the rubric is written in language students can understand and establishes students’ sense of ownership in the process. Students use the rubric’s criteria to help plan and complete their work. With instruction and guidance from teachers, students gradually develop an independent understanding of criteria-based evaluation and refer back to the rubric to self-assess their progress. This scaffolding process helps students become self-guided learners.
- Exhibitions. Exhibitions ask students to demonstrate what they know by presenting the products of their work and defending the results of their learning. Exhibitions often combine several components, such as a research paper, portfolio, design product (a model, graphic, or dance), and an oral presentation. The best exhibitions are given before an audience of teachers, parents, classmates and/or community members, who examine and ask questions about the student’s work and process. Knowing that their work will be publicly critiqued is a strong motivator. Preparing students for exhibitions requires teachers to focus on research, analytical and communication skills in the context of the content they are covering. The result is that students gain not only subject knowledge, but also the tools and self-confidence to demonstrate their knowledge in an authentic way.
- Portfolios. Portfolios are a collection of students’ work and their reflections (presented either in writing or as part of an oral presentation) on that work and the process involved in creating it. There are many different types of portfolios—they might be used to demonstrate students’ best work across subject areas, record a project’s process, or document ongoing growth in a specific academic area. Whatever the type, all portfolios include samples selected by students for the purpose of meeting pre-stated goals and criteria. Students engage in an ongoing process of critique and refinement that include formative feedback from teachers and mentors. A portfolio is often part of a culminating event (such as an exhibition) before an audience of school, family and community members.
Review this element on the Oregon Small Schools Initiative School Change Rubric Self-Assessment Tool.