Assessing Learning Versus Taking Assessments

I once tried to create a stop motion feature called “Phil in the Bubble.” Here, the protagonist is a student who sits alone in a black and white silent classroom taking a test. Bubbles emerge from his multiple choice test and when he tries to pop it, the bubble captures him and takes him out of the clasrooom and into the world, where he experiences a bubble-based adventure.

It didn’t pan out. It turns out I don’t know much about animation. However, I often go back to “Phil in the Bubble” when my students take tests.

See, I’m not against assessing learning. I assess often. When I use rubrics for projects, engage in one-on-one conferences, read exit cards, analyze student work or leave comments on blogs, I am assessing. On a daily level, I can determine the extent to which a student is mastering a standard.

Assessment is a verb. It is a part of the learning process. It isn’t something a student takes. It is something that a student does, alongside a teacher, in a contant, ongoing conversation. It happens when students put together portfolios are complete a self-assessment rubric (summative) or in that daily, constant dialogue of checking for understanding.

Unfortunately, the school system treats assessment as a noun. Here, assessing students means giving tests. Constantly. Six weeks a year, students stop the daily process of learning to sit in isolation, taking multiple choice tests. The same process happens once a week. Every Thursday is our common assessment day, where students sit silently filling out bubbles, trapped in the bubble of a testing culture.

When we treat assessment as something that students must take rather than something that we do, students begin to view assessment as an artificial “other,” a dark place they go to where, unlike their own work, they are forbidden to work collaboaritively, make their own decisions, use technology or use flexible thinking.

In addition, teachers are forced to compact the curriculum and teach at a breakneck speed. My students take assessments for for forty-eight percent of the school year. In the process, we stick to a rigid one-standard-a-week framework, assessed weekly in order to provide intervention.

Supposedly, the constant testing is a part of policies meant to help students. Common assessments are part of PLC. Quarterly benchmark tests are supposed to be summative measures to see what the students have retained. Ideally, this system leads to early intervention, data transparency and a system where we can easily identify how teachers are doing.

However, if the goal is helping students with intervention, why not switch from giving assessments to simply assessing learning? Why give them a hand-written writing prompt when we could use a holistic rubric with the writing they are already doing? Why not use the observational data that we already collect as teachers to determine who needs intervention?

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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6 responses

  1. I would argue that they learn a lot during the weeks that they take the tests, but that do not learn things that we (as educators) want them to learn. A student who does well learns that memorizing facts makes one smart, and a student who does poorly learns that being measured by someone else's standards makes you dumb.

    1. Exactly. The lessons they learn are often the most dangerous ones to internalize.

  2. I struggle with this policy-maker view of assessment as well (as I'm sure all teachers do!) I've struggled in the past few years to re-think my idea of "assessment" and move towards a system of assessment FOR learning as opposed to simply (over)using assessment as a measurement of learning. I wrote a little bit about it recently on my blog here: But this is a constant struggle in this absurd testing environment we are working in.
    Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

    1. Thanks for the link. The policy aspect can be brutal.

  3. Hey John – after hours of debate in Twitter, I finally realized that some of the people that I was debating with defined assessment quite differently. In my head, I was talking about ongoing formative assessments that happen in the moment as well as common summative assessments that happen as an event (with more emphasis on the formative)- both of these used positively to guide instruction and student learning. I had never been part of a system that abused summative assessments like has happened in the US. When I finally realized the context in which people were using the term "assessments", it made so much more sense. There wasn't even a debate and I became embarrassed to think that people thought I would be pro-US-style-standardized-testing-assessment. Since then, I really try to determine what people mean by assessment and I like the difference between a noun and verb that you have used.

    I think there can be a role for all types of assessments – it is often what is DONE with the evidence of learning that is key.

    1. I am not anti-assessment, per se. I just see how they have been used so poorly that I tend to bristle when people speak in favor of assessment and data. Truth be known, the verb and noun aspects are intertwined and every assignment is, in a sense, an assessment.

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