Assessment Formats Benefit Some More Than Others

This evening I stayed late at school grading my students’ post-it note responses to Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. [My school has shifted to a standards-based grading system this year, so I now give two grades for each assignment–one for work habits/effort, and the other for achievement. Achievement grades are based on an IB Middle Years Programme rubric I modify for specific assignments.]  As I was assessing my 8th graders’ reading notes, I happened to also have a spreadsheet open on my computer with my students’ data from our most recent Interim assessment in reading, which included several passages with multiple choice questions. I hadn’t looked at it very carefully yet.  Out of curiosity, as I finished assessing each student’s responses to the novel, I compared the achievement grade on my rubric to the grade he or she received on the standardized, multiple choice reading test.

I had no idea what I’d find, but it turned out there was a fairly high correlation between the achievement grades (out of 10) I was assigning for post-it note responses to Alexie’s novel, and the percentage correct the same students had on the multiple choice reading interim.  There were three glaring exceptions (sample size so far is 20):

(1) More than one boy with very messy handwriting did better on the multiple choice test than on the post-it notes.  There could be many reasons for this.  Perhaps I was biased in my grading becasue I struggled so much to read what the student had written. Perhaps the student struggles with the motor skills of writing so much that he’s not showing his real abilities in the notes.  Or perhaps due to the same struggles, the student has some weaknesses in his writing that haven’t been addressed by teachers, because it is so difficult to actually see what they are.

2) Several students whose home language is not English did significantly better responding authentically to the novel than to the multiple choice questions.  I’ve always felt that multiple choice tests put ELL’s at an unfair advantage, because they put students in front of texts and questions that utterly lack context, which is one of the most important things for English language learners to be successful in their reading.  On top of that, they are tricky, and use logic as much as reading skills, but choosing the best answer may hinge on whether or not they understand a single word or word construction.  

3) One particularly strong-minded student who “hates tests,” and evidently did not put much effort into the Interim assessment.  He did well on the notes, but extremely poorly on the multiple choice questions.  Given his strong capability as a reader, I know his feeling about the test is what actually got measured that day. 

The disparity in the performance of all of these students on authentic vs. standardized assessments gives me plenty to think about. It reminds me how much standardized tests must not become accepted as any kind of definitive measure of student learning or teacher effectiveness. Furthermore, teachers should be trusted to assess our own students, using all the tools available to us. 

  • ericpollock

    Assessment Formats Benefit Some More Than Others

    That doesn’t seem like a standards-based grading system. Habits/ effort is not exactly a standard to grade to. I have grading rubrics for tests, quizzes, presentations, speeches, etc., that match up standards and all have something with a tsandard embedded in it, for example,:

     1)  Organizes complex ideas, concepts, and information so that each new element builds on that which precedes it to create a unified whole, and includes formatting when useful to aiding comprehension.

    Fails to Meet Standard _______Meets Standard ______  Exceeds Standard ___


    And points are 0, 5, 8 or something similar

    All standards-based grading has three bands: fails to meet, meets, exceeds. (standards). There is no habits/effort/participation anymore, I think it is more professional.

  • ArielSacks

    Totally agree

    Eric, I agree with you here.  The achievement grades are standards based, but the “effort” grades are really remnants from the old system.  I agree that all of the “soft” skills can be assessed in a standard-based system, like your example shows, and I believe that anything we think is important and teachable, should actually be asessed as part of a student’s achievement. But for now, this is what I’ve got. I have totaly control over how I present my effort/work habits grades, but it’s been a lot to switch to this system, so I don’t have it all organized as I’d like it yet. 

    That said, I’m actually not even sure I believe grades are very helpful for students or teachers–standard-based or not.  I’d be interested in experimenting with a non-graded classroom.  I believe I could get my students motivated to work hard and improve their skills as much or more than they do in a graded system. I could be wrong, for sure, and I’ll probably never know!

  • PaulBarnwell

    “I believe I could get my

    “I believe I could get my students motivated to work hard and improve their skills as much or more than they do in a graded system. I could be wrong, for sure, and I’ll probably never know!”

    Ariel, I have the same impulse, and I’ve found that especially in my project-based elective courses, grades have marginal impact on motivation and effort.

  • BriannaCrowley

    Thanks for the illustration.


    Your post resonated with me as I too have reflected on what my assessments actually relay to me as a teacher. I empathize with your struggle to see the fairness of a grade for a few while simultaneously recognizing its validity for the many. 

    I teach in a strongly tracked high school. In the course of my teaching day, I am instructing and grading freshman honors, upperclassmen who are nonhonors, and juniors who are considered “at risk.” This provides me with a unique window to see the spectrum of responses students have to learning and incentivization through grades. Where my honors students beg me to return assessments so they can track their grades and judge their learning from my feedback, my juniors hardly seem to register when I save all their grading for the mid-way point of the marking period and enter it all at once. 

    I NEVER feel confident grading my ESL students. As you reflected, what information does this grade actually provide? Their understanding of the concept I am trying to convey or the progress they have made in understanding English. I feel at a complete loss when I have to take my 11th grade content, differentiate it to a 4th grade reading level, and then somehow create a fair grade in the black-and-white-100-point-scale system that doesn’t differentiate at all. When the ESL student receives an 80% for my differentiated assessment checking for basic comprehension (because that is all that is possible given language barriers) and my struggling English-speaking student earns a 70% because of being absent a day and missing crucial instruction or practice…what do any of the grades reflect anyway?