Quizzing For Learning vs. Quizzing To Get A Grade

I was talking to a colleague about an assessment idea I had. The scenario began “if I were a math teacher…,” but really, this idea applies to anyone who gives quizzes. Many teachers I observe who assess like this usually hang out at their desk while students take the quiz. Sometimes it’s timed. Sometimes there are “after the quiz…” instructions on the board. In the literature, this is called an obtrusive assessment, with class on pause, sometimes the entire time.

So, if I were to ever assess like that, instead of hanging out at my desk, I’d start circulating the room, stopping at each student to point out a quiz item they should review (e.g., “Ja’den, spend more time on #3”). And I’d do this the entire time, just walking around, essentially doing all the correcting I would’ve done during my planning period, and even providing some feedback. It’s kind of like a more involved individualized Monitor Assessment. My colleague was wondering how this “real-time rolling assessment” would really show what students know and can do. We talked a bit. Questions were asked like “with so much scaffolding, how do we know the student can do anything on their own?” The truth is, they might not, but how is that any different? In fact, during that whole discussion I forgot to consider what the “real-time rolling assessment” was being compared to. That is, how is a give quiz/collect/correct/hand back procedure any different, really, for finding out what a student knows or can do?

It comes down to process.

It’s treating the quiz as a learning experience for the student, and evidence of learning (or not learning) for the teacher, not something done in order to get a grade. Of all the wrong reasons to give quizzes, getting scores for the gradebook is pretty bad. Worst case, quizzes used this way have the potential to be summative, with no chance to redo/retake, improve, or take action based on feedback. Alternatively, quizzes could be part of the learning process, affording students all those opportunities that help them learn. That’s basically what my “real-time rolling assessment” would be. Just walking around identifying what students need help with, maybe even having them group up to collaborate if they still can’t do it on their own, and maybe even adjusting instruction if that’s happening to a lot of students. A classroom filled with…learning! Of course, this calls into question grading quizzes even more. That is, if the point is to see what students need help with, we don’t need to grade anything. Yet how often is this the case? More often than not, that quiz and its grade are used as some kind of control. Consider what Alfie Kohn had to say in 1993:

“Tests are used not so much to see what students need help with but to compel them to do the work that has been assigned” (Punished by Rewards, 1993, p.147).

Additionally, quoting Einstein’s 1946 autobiographical essay, Kohn shares what the genius said about his thoughts on exams as a physics student: “This coercion had such a deterring effect that after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year” (p.151). Oh, and this next quote is a personal favorite:

“Anyone who requires a formal test to know what is going on may need to reconsider the approach to instruction being used and whether he or she is talking too much and listening too little” (p.203).

Back to the discussion with my colleague, it was brought up that there are times when we really do need to see what a student can do without any assistance. I have two thoughts on this: (1) I think those times should be rare, especially up through high school. It’s true that beyond high school students will have to show what they can do without any support. However, we have no rationale for preparing students for these unknown situations by withholding the support they need now. The idea is that we should teach and teach and teach right up until the point at which a student might have to do this. I’m envisioning an AP course run using my “real-time rolling assessment” procedure the entire year, then maybe a practice exam before the official exam. Imagine all that time spent on learning! (2) if I were to assess like that (i.e., to see what a student can do without any assistance), I’d reduce the length of the quiz to something I could assess in minutes, perhaps following the same procedure (i.e., circulating the room until I see evidence of learning), just without the comments to go review/redo something. I still wouldn’t score or grade individual assignments, though. I think that ship has sailed for me at this point.

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