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Assessments in Education: A Guide for Parents

By World Family Education

As a parent involved in your child’s education, you may have wondered how your child’s learning is measured. Assessment is the process of measuring academic skills and learning, and your child will be assessed at many points during their schooling. Knowing how and why they need to be assessed will help you evaluate the quality of your child’s education. If you design the educational experience as a home educator, it will guide you to make better and more intentional choices for your child. 

An effective education is built around an accurate understanding of where a student is in the learning process. To maximize the student’s learning experience, a teacher should ask these questions:

  • What does the student know before a learning experience? 
  • How effectively is the student engaging in the learning experience?
  • How is the student showing personal growth through the learning experience?
  • How completely has the student mastered the learning objectives?
  • How much of the learning objectives will be retained long term?
  • How does the student compare to others having similar learning experiences?

To answer these questions, an educator will use an assessment process. Most of us think of a test when we hear the term “educational assessment.” A test is one type of assessment, but many other tools can be used. 

Educators also use the term “assessment” for the tools and processes used by educational psychologists and other specialists to identify (or diagnose) differences in academic skills, intelligence, physical capabilities, or emotions that would impact learning. These differences could mean there is a need for special modifications, accommodations, or services to help the student maximize the learning experience.

This article focuses on assessments used in the educational process rather than the more diagnostic assessment processes.  

Goal & Focus

Before selecting or designing an assessment process, an educator should know the goal for the assessment (what questions they want answered). From that point, a tool can be designed to answer those specific questions. Many times the goal or purpose will be determined by when the assessment occurs. We will discuss this more below. 

A well-designed assessment experience is focused. It limits the variables that impact the student’s ability to give an accurate representation of their learning. 

Example:
If a teacher wants to discover a student’s ability to retell a historical story, the teacher would consider the student’s writing fluency before deciding to require a written or spoken response. If a student struggles with the mechanics and process of writing, asking them to write the story would impact their ability to show their mastery of the historical story. 

It may seem more efficient to assess multiple variables at one time (i.e., story recall and writing skills), but care must be taken to avoid creating an unfocused assessment experience. Ultimately, an unfocused assessment is not very helpful and can actually lead to problems, including inaccurate results and student frustration. 

Form & Function

Assessments in education take many different forms. 

Informal Assessments

Informal assessments are used by teachers frequently to gauge the learning of students. They can be modified for each student, and the teacher can assess the entire class, or a sampling. Some are simple and quick activities to determine what students know, and are not calculated as part of the student’s grade. Data is shared only between teacher and student, so a teacher can give quick feedback on student learning in order to modify and improve instruction. Other informal assessments are calculated into the grade, and are more complex and time-consuming ways that students can show their knowledge and skills. 

Examples:

  • Students providing a writing sample
  • Projects
  • Student portfolios
  • Quizzes created by students 
  • Students working a mathematics problems on the board
  • Questionnaires

Formal and Standardized Assessments 

More formal assessments are usually designed by teachers, publishers, or specialists in education. These are scored and used to calculate a student’s grade in a course, and are more objective and structured than informal assessments. The teacher will share this data with the student and often with others. Some formal assessments have been turned into standardized assessments by using consistent formats and administration. These are administered to a large number of students, and statistical analysis has been used to make them into academic measuring tools. 

Examples:

Depending on when they take place in the learning process, assessments serve a variety of functions.

Check Before Learning

Before teaching a concept or skill, an effective teacher wants to know what a student already knows so that instruction is appropriate. This type of assessment is known as a pre-assessment or placement assessment, and is usually a simply designed and easily administered test of knowledge and skill. While some students may have no mastery in a subject, some students may have enough mastery that instruction should be modified. An educator can then design instruction to meet the different needs. 

Examples:

  • Asking students to draw a picture of an idea or topic before teaching
  • Making a list of things students know or want to know about a topic
  • Auditioning for a part in a drama production
  • Giving a short quiz on a topic before teaching it
  • Brainstorming as a class to make lists or fill in graphic organizers before a topic is presented

Check During Learning

During the instruction process, teachers can confirm or measure a student’s level of understanding and perform a simple assessment to do that. These assessments become part of the learning process and actually contribute to the formation of learning. They are known as formative assessments

Examples:

  • Pop quizzes with little-to-no impact on grade
  • Students providing a writing sample
  • Asking students to restate or explain an idea or fact to the class or a partner
  • Polling students for understanding (one finger = don’t understand, five fingers = get it, etc.)
  • Timed skills challenges in physical education 

Check After Learning

Of course, after an instructional experience, the effective educator will want to know what level of mastery a student has reached. The assessment designed to summarize a student’s learning is known as a summative assessment. We are most familiar with this type of assessment because of our experience with tests and exams, but there are other ways for students to show their level of mastery. 

Examples:

  • End-of-chapter, midterm, and final exams
  • AP and CLEP exams
  • Final project, presentation, or report
  • Completed student portfolio
  • Year-end exams in countries requiring them for passing to the next level
  • Senior music recital or art show

Check for Long-Term Mastery

In an ideal educational situation, an educator designs learning experiences based on data that shows how a student retains knowledge or skills over a longer period of time. This data can be gathered from an assessment that confirms a student’s long-term mastery and is known as a confirmative assessment.

Examples:

Compare & Contrast 

An effective educator needs to decide how to respond to the results of an assessment. If results are not compared to or contrasted with something else, they serve little meaningful purpose. There are three main ways of looking at assessment data, and usually some combination of the three is used to determine a student’s academic progress. 

The first helpful way of looking at assessment data is to compare and contrast it to similar data from the same student over a period of time to measure growth. This method is widely used by home educators, and often used in schools for more subjective subjects such as physical education or the fine arts. It can provide a very high motivation factor for students to grow their own knowledge and skill sets.

Another way of looking at assessment data is to compare it to the goals and standards of the curriculum or education system. This helps educators know if their teaching process is producing the desired results and meeting the criteria that defines success. This is known as criterion referenced analysis. It’s one of the more common ways of using the testing process in education as it is very helpful in identifying content mastery. Many education systems do regular testing like this to make sure schools are meeting standards set out by the government.

The third way of looking at assessment data is to compare and contrast a student’s results to those of other students. This process requires standardizing the assessment process and collecting a large sample of results for doing statistical analysis. Educators look at the data to see how a student compares to an average student (the norm). This is known as a norm referenced analysis. It’s less common than criterion referenced analysis as it requires considerably more work to produce an assessment that uses it. These types of assessments are helpful in measuring academic skills across a variety of educational systems.

If your child attends a school, you can request more information about the kind of assessments your child experiences and how the school responds to the results. Understanding the way the school uses that data will help you support your child’s academic success. It will also give you greater insight into the school’s goals for its students.

If your child is educated at home, carefully consider the best ways to assess your child’s learning. Based on the information received from a suitable, quality assessment, home education can be adjusted to meet the student’s needs more effectively. 

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Remote & Online Standardized Testing Options

Some standardized testing options for families living internationally:

Criterion Referenced

UK school exams (GCSEs, IGCSEs, O levels, AS levels, and A levels) can be taken at testing sites such as those offered by the British Council and Cambridge International

Let’s Go Learn has designed online testing options in math and reading that are referenced to the Common Core standards in the USA. 

Norm Referenced

Iowa Assessments are timed, standardized, and norm referenced (USA) academic skills assessments. They have a multiple-choice format and are meant to be administered over several days (short times each day). Seton Testing and BJU Press will ship the test booklets and answer sheets internationally so you can give the test at home.          

The Iowa Assessment is also offered online over 2–3 days by BJU Press on specific days and at set times of the day (some being reasonable for international students).

Stanford 10 is another trusted academic achievement test which is untimed but also standardized and norm referenced (USA). You can do the paper and pencil version by ordering test booklets from BJU Press and Homeschool Testing Services.

This test is available online through Seton Testing, Homeschool Testing Services, and Family Learning Organization. These are in USA time zones, or international time zones for an extra fee. 

TerraNova 2 (California Achievement Test-CAT 6) is a timed, standardized, and norm referenced (USA) academic skills assessments. This assessment has a multiple-choice format with some short answers for higher grades. Paper and pencil tests are available internationally through Seton Testing and Family Learning Organization.

A version of the CAT from 1970 has been converted into an online assessment and is available through Academic Excellence

P.A.S.S. Test is an untimed academic achievement test designed for home educators. It is double normed using homeschooled and traditional students in the USA.

Numerous standardized language proficiency tests exist, such as the French Diplôme d’Etudes en Langue Française (DELF), Mandarin Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK), and Arabic Language Proficiency Test (ALPT), among many others. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages provides assessments that measure skills in various languages. English Language Assessments are usually required for college-bound students who need to demonstrate their English-language skills to enter university.

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