VIEWPOINTS: COVID-19 disruption an opportunity to rethink assessment

April 28, 2020 Sherry Bennett, Alberta Assessment Consortium


During this time of physical distancing, teachers are doing the best they can to ensure that meaningful student learning continues. Any discussion of learning — distance or not — usually includes questions about assessment.

Assessment is often seen as a chore — something that teachers have to do, that students have to endure, and that ranks and sorts students. But what if assessment, especially during this time of isolation, could be a gift in disguise? What if assessment could simply focus on learning, without the pressure of grades?

It sounds wild and crazy, but let’s think this through.

Setting the context

Since 1998, educators have been studying the research on formative assessment. This body of research continues to grow, and continues to hold true to its claim: formative assessment, when implemented appropriately, can have a positive impact on student learning. A key component of formative assessment is feedback — ongoing communication between teacher and student about significant learning goals. Its primary purpose is to improve learning.

The promise of formative assessment is so great that it has been a focus of professional learning worldwide for more than two decades. Yet we have not seen the consistent adoption of these practices to obtain the degree of improvement in learning that the research claims.

While correlation is not causation, consider that while jurisdictions have been working to improve formative assessment practices, they have also been adopting increasingly sophisticated digital reporting systems. These are useful tools for recording and calculating grades, but they focus on the results of the summative end of the assessment cycle. Yes, many of these tools include a “formative assessment bin” where teachers can report the results of formative assessment. However, when we think back to the purpose of formative assessment, one might wonder why we would record and report formative “marks” at all.

What we currently have is a mismatch between what the research tells us will improve student learning — formative assessment — and a disproportionate focus and expenditure on grading and reporting. That’s not to say that formative assessment has disappeared. It hasn’t. But ask leaders what’s happening with assessment in their jurisdiction. Chances are they will mention their digital reporting system. 

During this time of “new normal” when things are anything but normal, this is absolutely the best time to take a risk. Alberta Education has provided ample flexibility with respect to year-end grades. Let’s take hold of this unprecedented opportunity to rethink assessment, for our students’ sake.

Could we let go of the grade book — just for now?

There are good reasons for tracking grades, but right now, there are so many variables and disparities among our students that any marks we try to gather will be inaccurate.

In light of the limitations, consider putting that reporting framework on pause for now. There is no need to rank and sort students, especially K–9 students. We have insufficient evidence to do so. Even using the evidence collected prior to mid-March doesn’t account for what improvements the students may have made had classes not ended abruptly. And while a mark can’t be based on conjecture, what value is there in putting a mark of “limited” on unfinished learning? Let us give our students “credit” for their learning thus far, and see how far teachers can still take them along this uncharted learning journey.

The most important thing we can do right now is to help our students feel confident as learners. Their world has turned upside down too. Our job is not just to finish this school year, but also to set the stage for a successful new year of learning.

If not grades, then what?

Replace the time previously spent marking with a focus on two key principles of formative assessment.

  1. Engage students. Rich performance tasks and problems that don’t have a single right answer are authentic learning opportunities that develop competencies students will need now and in the future.
  2. Focus on feedback. Help students learn how to reflect on their work in progress, and learn how to respond to feedback. These are essential life skills, and they also have a positive impact on learning.

These formative assessment practices can actually make a difference for students. Individual teachers can try them out, but it’s best when we implement them together. Leaders — please take time to thoughtfully consider how these suggestions might support students’ emotional well-being. If summative assessment and grading practices cause harm to students, even unintended harm, what’s the value of the grade?

Let’s give our students the opportunity to develop confidence as learners. This is one gift that will definitely retain its value. There will be plenty of time in the years ahead to focus on grades, if, in the end, we decide they actually matter. ❚

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