More on Assessment – Luke

Luke Meddings

Give The Test a Rest, Continued
– Luke Meddings


Two years ago I sat with Chuck Sandy and Vladimira Chalyova in a cafe in Kosice, Slovakia, discussing the problem of standardised assessment and brainstorming possible slogans. ‘Give the test a rest!’, I ventured. ‘I’m more than a score!’, countered Chuck.

This article is a continuation of work that has gathered pace since that day: an effort to understand what strikes me as a universal problem in education, namely the increasing lack of time and space available to teachers and students to explore their subject (any subject) critically and creatively.

I’m not against assessment per se – it’s woven into every moment we spend with students, as we sense when and how to intervene in their learning journey. It can motivate, and it can – if used to counter the potential bias of personal recommendation, for example – democratise. But if it is over-prioritised, it can limit what we do in classrooms to a rainy parade of past papers. It can reduce the syllabus to testable chunks. It can be done far too much, and much too young: increasingly, it is.

I want to consider assessment from a very broad perspective. Firstly, by looking at our teaching lives in the context of broader trends. Secondly, by using a poem from the last century, the one that was modern, as a reference point. And thirdly, by suggesting five points for reflection and action. Without reflection there is no understanding; without action there is no change. And without change – well, what then? Standardised testing will continue to endorse and reinforce increasingly narrow curricula worldwide, narrowing opportunity for the many while limiting exposure to true academic challenge for the few.


1) Times Like These

We live in a management culture, and we live and breathe business speak. We talk of accountability before we talk of humanity. We speak of parents as stakeholders, and we hasten to call any series (of films, of books, of children even, if we are stakeholders in the family business) a franchise.

We live in a measurement culture. Show me the data. Give me the proof. I can’t sell it in without the numbers. ‘Economic imperatives’, writes Raoul Vaneigem in The Revolution of Everyday Life, ‘seek to impose on the whole of human activity the standardised measuring system of the market.’ He was writing in 1967. ‘Every aspect of public and private life ,’ he pursued, ‘is dominated by the quantitative.

It’s not just teachers who suffer. As communities begin to resist standardised testing, we hear the voices of learners. ‘There is this serious force on students, when it comes to testing,’ said Alex Kacsh at the United Opt Out Conference in Denver, Colorado, ‘that if you don’t do well you’re going to lose your teacher and you’re going to lose your school.’ This is testing as surveillance, testing as threat. This is testing as an instrument not of social opportunity but of state power.


2) A poem, for contemplation.

One cannot make an argument without feeling.

Dolor, by Theodore Roethke

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper-weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pail hair, the duplicate grey standard faces.


3) Five points for reflection and action.

Let’s look at the problem in our academic context in five different ways, and think how we might get out of this fix.



There is an ideological issue. This relates to the portrayal of standardised testing as value-neutral. We can see this in the literature of testing, where new tests, increasingly online, are portrayed as being in line with best practice – evidenced by their alignment with frameworks like the CEF. But we are learning to recognise, understand and critique.



There is a psychological issue, which relates to the dynamic of the oppressor and the oppressed. If oppression is sufficiently advanced, it becomes hard to believe that it is really being carried out against one’s best interests. One can develop sympathy for the methods of those who place us under an intolerable burden: there must be reason in such madness. This area is perhaps worthy of exploration.



There is an economic issue, which relates to the opportunity seen by large corporations for profit in a wounded public school system, and who recognise opportunity in the general mania for data. Again, we must be ready to see this for what it is, and to call out the organisations that flourish in our own field for their unnecessary testing activity.



There is a pedagogical issue: this is where we can make a difference on a day-to-day level. Formative assessment offers a route to dialogue with students and parents as project work is assessed and the results shared on a regular, not occasional basis. We can make our own tests, and ask our students to get involved. And we can make sure we step back from the test – which may help when it comes to the exam.

In the UK, the Villers Park Education Trust reaches out to gifted pupils living in disadvantaged areas by helping them develop a passion for their subject. And the way to do that, explains chief executive Richard Gould, ‘is by not getting them to do anything that’s in their exam specification.’ According to research he citesthey end up with better grades.



Finally, there is a political issue. By political, I mean an issue with which we need to engage as citizens. To counter the measurement machine we need to make space in our classrooms. We need to make contact with colleagues in what can only be an international project of resistance. And we need to make the argument – with students, with parents, with colleagues, with education managers, with education departments, with education ministers. My own belief is that we should start by reclaiming 50% of our classroom time from standardised assessment, the curriculum and the course book. Going 50-Free will help develop our critical and creative capacities as educators, hand in hand with those of our students.


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More on Assessment – David

Dave Dodgson

Helping Young Learners Get the Most Out of Assessment – David Dodgson

One of the biggest ‘changes’ I have witnessed in my current school during the ten years and more I have worked here concerns assessment. When I started here, pencil and paper testing was king, dictating students’ grades and condensing their learning efforts of the previous few weeks into a concise 45 minute grammar-based test (as is the case in the majority of schools in Turkey).

However, there have been ‘changes’ (the reason for using inverted commas around ‘changes’ will be become clear as you read on): first, we were introduced to the CEFR; following that, portfolios and self-assessment were introduced to our in-house assessment programme; an increased emphasis was placed on project work; rubrics were created for grading classroom performance; and the Cambridge YLE tests (Starters, Movers, and Flyers) were brought in for the appropriate year groups.

With all these new elements, you would think that the importance placed on exams had diminished over the years but, far from it, the exam still rules over all. End of year grades are heavily weighted towards the test score. Moreover, the projects, portfolios and class performance grades are officially not allowed to be ten points above or below the test grade… And now you see that these ‘changes’ have not really changed much at all, except that students and teachers alike now have more work to do…

I may be wrong (I hope I am) but I suspect the same may be true in countries other than Turkey as well – ‘alternative’ methods of assessment are included and given some attention but the exam is still very much on top when it comes to student, teacher and stakeholder priorities.

So, I guess the exam is here to stay. That does not mean, however, that is has to stay the same. There are changes we can make to ensure that exams are used in a child-friendly way and in the second part of this post, I will share some changes and I have made and some changes I would like to make so that exams test the whole of the child’s knowledge and not just a few structures and new words covered in the since the start of the semester.


  • Using international standard exams as a role model for in-house assessment

As I mentioned above, my school added the Cambridge YLE exams to our EFL programme a few years ago. This has had a positive impact on our in-house exams as we have started to mirror the question formats. This means fewer densely-packed gap-fill grammar exercises and more comprehension and thinking-based questions. It also means more visual stimuli in the tests and a more spaced out layout, which leads to a more child-friendly and less intimidating appearance for the exam paper (alas, sadly that does mean we use more paper!)


  • Test the whole language

Another lead that I have taken from the Cambridge tests is to focus on the larger picture of what the student knows. I avoid testing obscure vocabulary items just because they were in the book or directing students to focus solely on using past simple or past continuous because that was in the last unit. Instead, I aim for texts, questions and activities that test their overall knowledge of English from the 3 or 4 years they have been learning at school so far. In order to successfully complete the exam tasks, the students must activate their whole knowledge rather than just part of it. In what may seem like a contradiction, this is actually less stressful for learners as they don’t fret over a new language point they are fully familiar with and they don’t feel the urge/pressure to cram study.


  • D.I.Y. test preparation

Of course, exams are not just about taking the test but also revising and reviewing ahead of it. It’s all too easy to fall into a trap here of worksheets covering recent grammar and lexis, which often add to the boredom and/or frustration of the exam process. This is one area where we can inspire a change – we don’t always have the authority to change the exams our students take (I can only directly affect the exams for students in the year group I am responsible for) but we certainly can change the way they prepare. Instead of those boring review worksheets, why not get your students to create their own practice materials? After reading a text in class, ask them to prepare exam-style questions on it; get them to make their own grammar gap-fills; encourage them to prepare vocabulary quizzes for the rest of the class; use their own compositions and paragraphs as reading texts. All of these activities can help students get inside the exam and think about how the questions are put together from a different perspective. And they might just learn something rather than simply review it.


  • Give students a voice in their own assessment

Why stop there? If students are capable of preparing their own practice activities, why not have them compose their own exam questions as well? I tried this with a few classes last year for some target vocabulary. I reviewed the words they needed to know for the exam and asked groups of students to write questions involving each word. We then spent time correcting and redrafting the questions, rejecting any that were too easy or too hard and eliminating any ambiguity until I had a list of about twenty questions. From those that list, ten questions were chosen for the test so the students wouldn’t know exactly which ones were coming up. They may have recognised some questions when they opened their exam paper but I believe they got more out of researching and writing those questions than they would have from memorising the words during a period of self-study.


  • Have alternatives, not additions

And, finally, I would like to return to a point made earlier in the post. Alternatives to ‘traditional’ assessment are all well and good but they must be used to replace or at least reduce the emphasis on exams. What I have seen happen in several schools is that portfolios, project work, external exams and so on are all added on top of the existing assessment system. This leads to a never-ending cycle of work and pressure for the kids and preparing, supervising and marking for the teachers. Ideally, these assessment alternatives should mean that in place of say four written tests a semester, students have perhaps two tests and then graded project and portfolio work. If exams must stay, let them stay but if we want to explore alternatives, they should be just that – alternatives, not additions. And as for the exams themselves, let’s try to make them positive and rewarding experiences for our young learners that help them develop, reflect and grow.


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More on Assessment – Hengameh

Hengameh Ghandehari

How Do You Honor the Process of Learning?
– Hengameh Ghandehari


Assessment is one of the most valuable sources of information about what is happening in a learning environment. Move beyond the attitude of using assessments to courier the end of an instructional zone. Let assessment discover new paths for exploration—for you and your pupils. Assessments are most useful when they focus on informing instruction, not marks. Involve your students in the process. Apply assessments as motivational tools, not confidence crushers. Clearly define the learning objectives… This is a snapshot of the chats surrounding today’s role of classroom assessments. What does assessment mean to you?

Roughly put, learning is just a growth in awareness. The transition from not knowing to knowing is part of it, but that’s indeed too naïve, because it misses nearly all the degrees of knowing and not knowing. One can hardly ever truly understand something any more than a shrub can stay trimmed. There’s always growth or decay, changing contexts or conditions: Understanding is the same way. It is not smooth.

Yes, this sounds silly and esoteric, but think about it. While pieces of information may not change, the context in which students use them do change, which in turn changes how we consider and use those pieces of information. In fact, so little of the learning process is unchanging. Even what we call facts like significant historical dates, labels for ethnic groups, causes and effects of cultural movements, all change endlessly, if not in form (how they’re discussed), then in meaning and connotation (what we think of them).

In the last decade, engineering, religion, media, literacy, human rights, geography, technology, science, and so on all have changed considerably both in form and connotation, with changes in one (i.e., technology) changing how we think of another (i.e., design), and thus changing how students use this skill or understanding and changing how we, as teachers, “teach it.”

However,the implications of awareness reach even farther than that. It is more than merely understanding or not as grasping the changing contexts for that understanding. It is also about becoming more aware of one’s own degree of knowing and not knowing.

But learning is as much about knowing what you do not know as it is about proving what you do. Assessment can offer an estimate of how much and how deeply a student understands, but that’s all it is – a guess based on a given assessment form, a quick snapshot of student understanding at any given moment, marred by reading level, academic vocabulary, student self-efficacy, the wording of the question, or even his or her mood that morning.

Since the above may sound like doubletalk for most teachers, here are my five precooked ideas for putting all this theory into practice.

1. Use Learning Taxonomies

Pursue various resources to guide your instructional design. This should include assessment. Move beyond “pass or fail,” or even “A-F,” to “can define and apply, but has trouble analyzing.”

2. Use Concept Maps

Have students map, chart, diagram or otherwise visually represent their own learning lanes and changes in their own understanding. Find ways for them to express what they do and don’t understand, where they started, where they are, and where they might be going.

3. Use a Variety of Assessment Forms

If this is the only way you personalize learning, give it a shot. Assess student performance, writing, concept maps, drawings, interviews, projects, Facebook status or comments, or maybe quick Instagram videos followed by short written responses. You can even allow pupils to choose their own assessment form as you challenge them to prove not just if they have grasped it, but how.

4. Foster thinking aloud

Prime the pump by assigning students quick writing prompts about their own thinking. Model what metacognition looks, sounds, and/or feels like. Have students share their thinking. Allow them to express themselves and their thinking away from the pressure of the classroom and the expectations of verbal expressions. Add it to the rubrics.

5. Connect Students to Networks

Draw students’ attention to communities and resources that can help them move towards knowing and understanding. As they connect to networks, the learning process will plug them in, not just to one teacher, or 30 classmates, or 10 texts, but to something much larger and more able to interact with students freely.

How do you honor the process of learning? Share your thoughts and strategies in the comments section below.


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More on Assessment – Chuck

Chuck Sandy

Measurement, Magic, and Balance
– Chuck Sandy


Earlier today there were five school children riding unicycles in the park across from where I live. Two of them had joined hands and were spinning round and round, going faster and faster. Another two were slowly circling the park’s perimeter clearly enjoying what they were doing. The other one kept falling and looked close to tears. I mentally assessed them: superb, pass, fail. I was wrong.

Before long, the older man who used to be a social worker and who now has taken it upon himself to be responsible for what happens with the school children in the park was scolding the spinning ones for doing something dangerous, encouraging the slow circlers to go a little faster, and had the falling one hanging onto his arm while he whispered something in her ear for awhile before letting her go, drift off by herself, and not fall.

I see this same thing every spring: Learning to ride a unicycle is an encouraged part of the curriculum for 3rd and 4th graders in the local elementary school here in my corner of rural Japan, meant to develop balance, encourage perseverance, and build confidence. Learning how to do it is the assessment. No outside evaluation is necessary, but help and instruction from outside the school is always welcome.

Tomorrow all these children will go to school and learn the usual things elementary school children learn with their teachers. Like in all schools, some of those teachers will be wonderful, some less so, some terrible. Some of what the children learn will be important. Some of it will not be important. The retired social worker will be out in the park grooming the baseball field as he waits for the children to get out of school. What he contributes is also important. Not only does he help kids learn to ride unicycles, encourage everyone to be safe and play well together, he also helps with homework, bandages up bruised knees, tells stories about values, shares his experiences, and makes sure no one forgets anything at the end of the day.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot about the move to implement adaptive learning technologies into school systems, the nefarious uses of big data in system-wide curriculum management and national curriculum development, the corporatization of school systems, the rise of standardized testing, the dehumanization of education, and the struggles both teachers and learners face in light of all this. I’ve also been reading a lot about magical solutions and dreamy ideas that some feel could change education forever. It’s all quite frightening. And from my position down the street from the elementary school and across the street from the park, I can’t help but think that neither of those two directions is right and that both are darkly wrong.

Learning and teaching cannot be confined, tied-down, given a test, and assigned a score.  Nor can it be passed off as magic that just happens. What happens when it does happen is too complex, too human, too grounded in hard work, and much too wrapped around the relationships that learners and teachers and caregivers and neighborhood helpers have with each other and whatever they’re learning and teaching to be called magic. It much too complex to be reduced to data points. We are more than a score. We are also worth more than magic can ever add up to.

Yet, there are those who would have us believe that it’s either one or the other – magic or measurement  – when it fact it’s neither — and those who want us to believe education is so deeply flawed that there are no solutions. So would you please just please quietly accept this, submit, and give up.  We will not.

Night is coming on. The unicyclists have ridden off for home. The retired social worker stands at the edge of the park talking with a couple of teachers from the elementary school.  They are in this together. We are all in this together.

That’s the only solution I can think of, and maybe the only one there’s ever been.


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More on Assessment

What is assessment, what should we assess, who should do it, and why does it matter? In this issue Luke Meddings, Chuck Sandy, Dave Dodgson and Hengameh Ghandehari weigh in.


Luke Meddings
Luke Meddings
Dave Dodgson
David Dodgson
Hengameh Ghandehari
Hengameh Ghandehari
Chuck Sandy
Chuck Sandy


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