Which Assessment is the Fairest of Them All?

Mike was born and raised in Sheboygan, WI. Mike attended UW Madison where he received his degree in Secondary Education in Broadfield Science and Biology with additional certifications in chemistry and physics. He’s been a secondary educator for 16 years, 12 of which have been at Brookfield Central High School in Brookfield, WI. His interests in education focus on putting students at the center of their own learning experience. He lives in Brown Deer, WI with his wife and dog.

More from Mike on his website.


As educators we are recognizing every day how different our learners are, but have our means of assessing changed to adapt to these new realizations? When we look at assessing we need to look again at why we assess, what we assess, how we design assessments, and who is assessing.

The ultimate reason for assessing our learners is twofold.

  1. To inform learners of current level of performance.
  2. To indicate gaps in order to inform their path towards mastery.

Great assessments can be seen as being in “draft state.” Just like the learning behind them, they are a work in progress. The teacher provides the Siri-like guiding voice to help the learner correct her path. Great assessments lead to meaningful feedback which drives deeper learning. Therefore, quality assessments provide learners with specific feedback as it relates to a specific learning outcome.

To increase the specificity of feedback:

  1. Align assessments to specific outcomes
  2. Be specific about what mastery looks like
  3. Provide feedback related to how mastery was demonstrated and if not what is lacking

Crafting a proficiency scale

Although it is meaningful for a teacher to know the preferences of learners, the power of personalized assessments deepens when learners know their own preferences and challenges. Crafting a proficiency scale focused around only the outcomes will allow for learners to demonstrate mastery in a variety of modes. To help me with this, the creation of proficiency scales has been extremely helpful. I first learned of this type of scale from the work of the Marzano Institute. The goal of creating these scales is to clearly communicate to students what the outcome is, what mastery looks like, and provide an easy reference for learners to reflect on their progress.

Here’s an example of one for an outcome in physics:

4 3 2 1 0
I can analyze, compare, and design series and parallel circuits I can design and analyze series parallel circuit networks I can design and analyze series and parallel circuits. I can analyze series and parallel circuits. I can compare series and parallel circuits. I cannot compare series and parallel circuits.

Using assessments to drive instruction

For assessments to truly be a tool to drive instruction, they can’t simply be a tool used by teachers. If teachers spend more time grading assessments, this slows down the timing of feedback. In formative assessment cycles, having learners judge their own learning can not only be more efficient but also more meaningful. When students can identify their own gaps in learning, they can devise their own learning needs.

Once clear outcomes for an assessment are clearly defined, then classroom practice can be changed. An easy first step to changing practice is to not shut the door on mastery on the day of a summative assessment. Like any assessment, this can be viewed as an opportunity to provide meaningful feedback to allow students to move towards mastery. So, giving students opportunities for reassessment to demonstrate mastery without penalty can be powerful because it doesn’t highlight on failure. It builds on success and requires learners to identify gaps in understandings and address them.

Another option is to make quizzes truly formative. In my class, quizzes are not recorded in the grade book. Students try the quiz without assistance. Then, they are able to utilize peers or notes to learn what they didn’t already understand. After the quiz, they then reflect on where they are at in terms of what they knew without help, what they needed help with, what they still are struggling with, and what resources they need to close those gaps. Quizzes have become a powerful tool in my class for assessment of learning and as learning.

A bigger step would be allowing students choice in how they demonstrate mastery of content. While students can still be provided the option of a traditional test, opening up options can allow for students who are unable to communicate their understanding accurately on a traditional test. Before giving students a menu of options to choose from, it is important that instructors look at learner preferences to help design a menu. In my class, these include creation of multimedia documents such as screencasts or videos. In addition, students can do reports, construct a physical object, or give a presentation.

So what does this look like in practice in my classroom?

We recently completed a unit on electricity which featured the objective above on series as parallel circuits. I have begun leaning on Pear Deck as an interactive presentation tool for content delivery. We use Pear Deck to present new content and check for understanding in real time. As I present content, I am able to create interactive slides which as students to respond to prompts. During these questions, it also facilitates peer discussions. There are many strategies like this out there but the key point is to allow for engagement with new content as it’s being introduced and giving every learner a voice in the process.



In addition to content delivery, Pear Deck is utilized for our quizzes. At the end of a quiz, student will rate themselves on the proficiency scale as well as reflect on their performance in their Google Sites Portfolio.  

In addition, students report out on what type of practice they need to improve their performance. This feedback drives the options I try to provide them during practice days. Using Canvas LMS helps me catalogue a wealth of resources for students looking to practice digitally.


At the end of this unit, students were tasked to design a product that incorporated multiple circuit types to perform a unique function. Once built, they had the option to present the physics behind their product in a variety of ways including a poster presentation, a video, written report, one on one presentation, or pencil and paper test. All presentations of understanding could be assessed using the same proficiency scale.

This was the first summative assessment we had completed since our new term started 3 weeks ago. So, when most students submitted their summative assessments, they were far from perfect. They were first drafts of expressing understanding. That started the process of feedback and led to conversations that didn’t center around student understanding but communication of understanding. These conversations had meaning because students had the opportunity to learn from the feedback, revise, and be reassessed.

Remember that the purpose of assessment is not to grade but to check progress. Quality assessment practices help identify when mastery has been achieved and it’s time to move on to new content. It also helps inform specifically where a learner’s gaps are in order to inform instruction for the learner and the instructor. This feedback is what ultimately drives instruction for remediation, enrichment, or graduation to new content. This is a big change that requires understanding for the teacher, learner, and all stakeholders.



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