Five Assessment Myths and Misunderstandings

Tchers' Voice: Great ideas from passionate educators just like you

Walking around the classroom, clipboard in hand, I moved as quickly as possible, diligently checking for homework completion, assigning five points to those who had it done, two-and-a-half to those who had it partially done, and zero to those who didn’t do it. It was super scientific and truly measured learning… (he says sarcastically).

Luckily for my students, since then I’ve grown quite a bit in my understanding of assessment practices, and as I look back at them over the past 14 years, it’s not with disgust (although that would be justified at times), but with hope — and the knowledge that change is possible. I author this piece not to judge current practices, but in the hopes that some of the ideas below might shed new light on ways to take a fresh approach to assessment, and improve learning for all students.

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“But total points, weighted categories, or averaging are my only options in the gradebook.”

This statement, in and of itself, is not a misunderstanding; the reality is that these three options are the only options in most gradebooks. However, that doesn’t mean that these are the only three options for teachers. It means they represent the system in which we must begin the assessment process. These predetermined options need not be where the assessment process ends.

About five years ago, one of my students really helped me to understand this. He earned a score of 81 on his first literary analysis essay. On his second literary analysis of the semester, he earned a score of 95. When we got to the semester grade, which because of the default settings in the gradebook was now an 88, this student asked to meet with me to discuss his grade. He began with a question,

“Mr. Bronke, all throughout the workshop time of the second essay, you continued to tell us that this paper encompassed all of the skills of the first essay, plus a few new skills. Right?”

He was correct, so I affirmed that statement. He then asked,

“Well, if I got a 95 on a paper that, in theory, was more difficult than the first one and covered all the skills of the first one, does it make sense to ‘punish’ my grade by averaging the first one into it?”

This student was 100 percent correct. He clearly, with more time and practice than we had for the first paper, developed mastery of the essential skills of the semester. So, as we think about grades, it’s important to let the default settings of a gradebook be an aide and not an absolute. If I hadn’t really listened to this bright and engaged student, he could’ve easily become disillusioned and I could’ve lost him. As I always say to my teachers, especially new teachers,

You own your gradebook, not the computer programmers; do what’s right for kids to accurately reflect learning, not what the software ‘forces’ you to do.

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“But retakes give kids the chance to not study at all, see how they do, and then try again if needed.”

If you’ve taught for more than five seconds, you’ve almost certainly been involved in the debate about retakes and revisions.

  • Proponents of this strategy push the agenda that mastery and learning are what really matter.
  • Opponents espouse the “unfair advantage” this gives students.

The argument is this:

  • Student A chooses to study diligently, is prepared for the test, and earns an A.
  • Student B doesn’t study because he knows that there’s a retake option, earns a D, takes the retest, and earns an A.

Why should these two students get the same grade?

For me, there’s always been a simple answer: A student should get an A because — eventually — he earned an A. As I coach teachers through this situation, I urge them to think about the following two factors:

  • Maybe Student B didn’t study because he had tests in three other classes where he was really struggling. Or maybe he didn’t study because he found out the night before that his mom has cancer. Or maybe he didn’t study because… Does it matter? If our goal is that all students learn, the reality is simple: You still have a student who got a D and clearly has more learning to do. Why end the process now?
  • What are you doing for Student B between test one and test two? This is often key. For teachers who are worried Student B is just “playing the game,” seeing how he can perform without studying because he knows he has the safety net of a retake, I ask, “What do you make students do to earn a retake?” If you require students to do things like meet with you one-on-one, or complete supplemental study packets, or whatever action is necessary to remediate the learning gap, students who might be playing the game will quickly realize that it’s the same amount of work either way — study before or study after — there is still studying (i.e., learning) to do.

If mastery learning -- not one-time perfection -- is the goal, then retakes and revisions only make sense for supporting students on the journey.

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“But Suzie got a B, she doesn’t need to revise or retake”

This one might be the most simple for me. Teachers who believe only a certain grade should be eligible to do revisions or retakes are saying to students above that grade cut-off, “I don’t care that you want to get better, above average is good enough.”

I get it. Students will play the game of revising their 89 to make it a 90 or their 92 to make it a 96, all in the name of GPA and class rank. However, if the assessments are designed correctly and the work required in order to revise or retake is meaningful, additional learning and mastery of skill should still occur for this student, too.

Even if it’s just one of many ways I can help my students and show them I care about their learning, I want to begin to create a culture of improvement and growth on day one. I tell my students,

Even if you get a 100 percent on a paper, which is rare, I’ll still have ways you can improve. And if you want to revise to keep getting better as a writer, I’d love to support you in that pursuit.

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“But I don’t need to give a pre-test, I already know that they don’t know this stuff.”

With so many states now using some sort of student growth measure as part of the evaluation process, pre-tests, for better or worse, are all the rage; however, many teachers can relate to the quote above. And I get it, having taught ninth graders for 13 years now (at all levels), I can, with a fairly high degree of accuracy, predict what students will and will not be able to do. But a recent conversation with my amazing literacy coach, Marjorie Thomas, reminded me that pre-tests have benefits beyond tracking growth; they’re about designing instruction.

I’m working on a new unit that I’ve not taught before. At its core, I’ll be creating five text sets to accompany a study of Romeo and Juliet, each one from a specific time period and containing one painting featuring a couple, and two poems about love. Students will be asked to close read the painting and poems, and then write an argument about which poem better captures the artist’s vision for love.

My pedagogical conundrum was whether or not to teach all five paintings first, then teach poetry, and then practice synthesis; or teach the unit — text set by text set —  with synthesis as the ongoing skill. I met with Marjorie and we talked about pros and cons for both, and finally she said, “Why don’t you let the students decide?” I said, “But they won’t know.” To which she said, “But their work will…”

By giving them the first text set with no instruction, as a pre-test, I’ll be able to ascertain, pedagogically, which approach will be the most challenging while still allowing for success.

As teachers, it’s important that pre-tests are much more than ways to measure student growth; they are tools to tighten up our teaching.

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“But how does any of this help prepare students for the ‘real world’?”

I choose to address this point last, because it’s intimately connected to all of the above myths and misunderstandings, and because sadly, it might be the one I hear most.

“But the real world doesn’t give you retakes.”  

“But if you miss a deadline in the real world, you get fired.”

“But if you fail in the real world, you get fired.”

I could go on and on, but I hope you get the point. To this myth or misunderstanding, I always have a few replies:

  • First, these are kids; school is the real world, and it isn’t a job. It’s a chance to learn, to make mistakes without the consequences of “the real world,” to practice, and to improve.
  • Second, adults make mistakes at their jobs and aren’t instantly fired. For some reason, as a generalization, teachers who believe this concept about the “real world” seem to overlook that the “real world” is more forgiving than they want to give it credit. For example, we’ve all been out to dinner and had one plate of food come out perfectly, while the other needs to be sent back. Same cook, same evening, same cut of meat — but he made a mistake. I’m going to guess that each time a plate of food is sent back, someone isn’t fired on the spot. We must push past the facade that the “real world” is this tough, unforgiving place into which our students will be entering.

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If you want to help prepare students for the “real world”, teach them to not give up, to want to get better, to be a good person, to embrace honesty, to care about the process, and to love learning. These traits will be much more vital to their long-term success than any lesson one’s rigid assessment policies could ever teach them.

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I’m well aware that this piece fails to get into many key aspects of assessment: rubric design, retakes for kids who don’t want to retake, assigning more than you grade, standards, etc. (and while I’d have loved to share my thoughts on all of this, these are ideas and posts for another day). However, I hope you’ll think about a few aspects of assessment philosophy a little differently, and I hope you’ll share your own myths and misunderstanding below so we can learn together.

Be sure to check out Teaching Channel‘s Deep Dives for more on Class Culture, Growth Mindset, and Formative Assessment.

Christopher Bronke is a ninth grade honors English teacher and Department Chair at Downers Grove North High School, in Illinois. He evaluates teachers, oversees the literacy coaching program, plans and implements professional learning, and works with district leaders on CCSS integration, implementation, common assessments, and rubrics. Christopher is an innovative literacy leader who has experience with CCSS integration across content areas, blogging to empower teacher voice, collaborative and teacher leadership, literacy leadership, and social media in the classroom. He was a member of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council, a Community Manager and Innovation Coach for the Redesign Challenge, Community Manager Lead for Sevenzo, and he currently serves on the Executive Committee as a member-at-large for the Conference on English Leadership. Christopher has served on several Executive Planning Committees for national and regional ECET2 convenings, and is a Co-Founder, Director, and Writing Coach for the National Blogging Collaborative, a non-profit organization that cultivates and supports the capacity of all educators to use their unique voice to elevate the craft of teaching and learning. Connect with Christopher on Twitter: @MrBronke.

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