Sunday, October 30, 2011

Common Assessment = Undifferentiated Assessment

Here is a guest post by Dave Martin. He tweets here and blogs a lot about math here.

by Dave Martin

I would like to challenge the idea of common assessment. Not just common throughout a department but common even in a single classroom. From this time further I will refer to these assessments as their true name “Standardized Assessments”. The definition of a standardized assessment is:
a test that is administered and scored in a consistent, or "standard", manner. Standardized tests are designed in such a way that the questions, conditions for administering, scoring procedures, and interpretations are consistent.
Also, I refer to these as standardized assessments as they are designed in such a way the class average should fall in a “reasonable” zone. This zone may differ from teacher to teacher and from class to class but this underlying bell curve does exist. I have heard of meetings where discussions such as “The average was low, so the test should be made easier” or “The average was too high, so we need to increase the difficulty” have been had. This saddens me as we are requiring students to fail such that others can feel success.

Since by the definition and the manner these assessments are designed, usually, they must fall on a specific day, common to all teachers of the same course, and also consist of some mixture of the following:
· MC 5-10 questions
· NR 3-5 questions
· WR 2-5 questions with bullets
Usually the test days, and requirements are decided before the first day of schoolI have asked why do teachers give common assessment? I will provide the two top reasons I heard, and then my counter-argument.

1) Standardized assessment allows for fair and equal assessment practices between the same courses throughout the school.

Counter: What is fair is not always equal and what is equal isn’t always fair. If we truly want equal assessment, then should we not require all students to write with the same hand, take off their glasses, set the temperature in all the rooms to be the same, and have all students write with the same type of pencil? I know this sounds absurd, but where does the fair and equal practice stop? Each and every student, in my class, has a different set of needs and abilities yet these exams will force each student to be put through the same hole. Alberta Education recently, wrote:
Differentiated assessment means selecting tools and strategies to provide each student with the best opportunity to demonstrate his or her learning. As you get to know your students, and as student differences emerge, assessment naturally becomes more differentiated, because its purpose is to meet students where they are and to coach them to the next step. In this way, assessment and instruction continue to support and inform each other.
By making these decisions before ever “knowing my students” how is one to decide which would be the “best opportunity for each student to demonstrate his or her learning”? I do not see standardized assessment as a fair and equal practice at all.

2) Standardized assessment allows for fair and equal instructional practices between courses throughout the school.

Counter: This seems like the standardized assessment is more assessing the teacher than the student now. Even if two students, in two different classes, receive the same mark this does not guarantee the same instruction has been given. One teacher could be “teaching to the test” and involving daily test prep activities while the other is implementing quality instruction and critical thinking.

Now, the problems I see with common assessment:

First and foremost: It is the duty and responsibility of the classroom teacher to determine how and when to assess each student. I am confused and distraught when people, outside the class, control the assessment strategies, without even knowing the individual students they are impacting.
Alberta Education’s ideas are:
Differentiating assessment involves rethinking the standard practice of having all students do the same assessment tasks at the same time, regardless of their individual learning needs or the learning they have already demonstrated. Rather, in this new paradigm, teachers customize the selection and use of assessment information to reflect each student’s highest level of achievement.
By having standardized exams, we are going against the research and knowledge of our government. Also, it should be the freedom of the teacher to decide, and indeed, the freedom of each student to decide how and when they will be assessed on their knowledge. Of course we all know that some people employed as teachers do not do a good job, but by forcing everyone to assess, and ultimately, teach the same way it does not improve these “bad teachers” – but actually hobbles the good ones.


  1. A really good post. Now if we can just get Alberta Learning to practice what they preach and eliminate PAT and PDE exams.

    A number of teachers will read this post and say, "how am I going to make this work in my classroom?". I look forward to your next post answering this question.

    Once we model differentiated assessment then we can start to encourage many teachers to change their assessment practices.

    Thanks for making me think about my own assessment practices.

  2. Can you:

    - Eliminate medals from athletics?
    - Eliminate selection from athletic team making also?
    - Eliminate competitive sports?

    You can't do that right? The Athletes have an undeniable talents and skills that are unique.

    In the same way, there are some kids who are able to answer well under standardized test format. They DO have a talent.

    Now, there are other students who are creative but not good with testing. Instead of removing differentiation between the two groups, you must try to help them find new avenues.

    Bashing the US is the easiest thing to do, but the smartest kids in whole world are taking SAT/ACT examinations.

    Why is it that our world university rankings are so behind the US?

    Why are we so afraid of standardization?

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