Assessment-based instruction…always applicable?

Hashtags: #assessment #formativeassessment #summative assessment #testing

Inspired by a Google+ chat on a discussion of assessment and instruction, I felt compelled to discuss how I see the relationship between the two terms.

I’d like to address what Seburn finally concludes in his last post:

I would suggest rather the assessment and instruction are working off each other, not one driving the other so black and white. While I agree assessment should not simply be an afterthought, which really dismisses its value (as though it’s simply tagged on to the end of a course out of necessity), I don’t think it’s what should be made first either, before the instructional content. That lends to the danger of simply teaching to the test and not allow for the flexibility of adapting instruction to emergent student needs.

There are few things in life that I feel are black and white, right or wrong, better or worse, etc. But when it comes to assessment and instruction, my belief is that assessment should come first…I’ll explain.

Formal education

A common reality in formal education, or learning in schools, universities, etc., is that goals, objectives, and values, and usually expressed in terms of a curriculum. The written curriculum states what learning outcomes can be expected. The taught curriculum (which can differ from the written curriculum) involves a great number of variables that influence how the written curriculum is interpreted and employed within each classroom. If a curriculum is evaluated, then some attempt is made to reconcile any possible disconnects between the written and taught curriculum.  Most often this implies a change in the taught curriculum more than a change in the curriculum. So, at the level of institution, the premise that outcomes are planned beforehand is fairly straightforward: instruction has yet to be implemented in this scenario. Instruction, in fact, is designed later as a means for achieving certain ends, ends that are articulated in the written curriculum, interpreted by individuals (teachers) in the taught curriculum, and (hopefully) reflected upon later to evaluate any discrepancy between the written word and human discernment.

Let’s move now to the level of the individual classroom or teacher. Based on the curriculum, a syllabus, scheme of work (e.g., weekly schedule), and more detailed lesson plans are all planning devices that ideally align with each other. The goal however remains the same: to provide a (written) predetermined “roadmap” as to what can be expected in terms of learning outcomes. Lesson plans will include instructional designs, but only after assessments have been established beforehand that articulate the learning outcomes that align with the scheme of work, syllabus, and written curriculum. Assessments are where expectations (of learning outcomes) are revealed and may appear in the lesson plan, scheme of work, syllabus, and the curriculum.

So, lesson plans follow the same logic as the scheme of work, syllabus, and written curriculum. In formal education, planning for expected outcomes drives instruction. Planning for performance tasks, creating academic prompts, and factoring in different types of formative assessments beforehand creates the “blueprint” for instructional design. Taking into consideration both formative and summative assessments collectively guide teachers and students to the end goal. I’ll all for heavy formative assessments, but the absent of summative assessments create a lack of goals (expected learning outcomes) which will lead to detours throughout the learning journey.

What happens when assessments are planned after instruction? A teacher begins instruction (with no specific end in mind) and after a few weeks decides to think about assessment. Perhaps formative assessment was employed, but with no clear performance task, academic prompts, etc. being considered, there is more of a likelihood that assessments end up aligning more with instruction than aligning with the scheme of work, syllabus, and/or curriculum.  In other words, summative assessments get tweaked to accommodate prior instruction.  An alternative is planning assessments with students (an option) which can serve as a motivation tactic that allows students to establish an end goal collaboratively before beginning instructional activities. If assessments are planned afterwards, it’s as if the logic behind planning a lesson plan differs from the planning that goes into each week, each course, and each school-wide program.

Assessment-based instruction does not equate to a “cookie-cutter” approach to education. Differentiated instruction (DI) provides opportunities for a more democratic way of learning. DI affords learners choices in what content they interact with, how they decide and ultimately interact with such content and with others, and what products they will create.  Teachers create this learning environment based on students’ readiness levels, interests, and learning preferences. Negotiating performance tasks with students (before instruction) is an example of DI which permits students to invest in their own learning. Depending on the context, students can even have a say as to how they will be evaluated. DI works when teachers and students are co-creators within an overall learning design, one which still plans for assessment before instruction.

Today, high-stakes exams (or standardized tests) are a reality. A common misconception is that assessment-based instruction is the same as teaching to the test. Teaching to the test is preparing students for the test items that appear on a standardized test. Assessment-based instruction is not about teaching to the test; it’s about assuring that instruction allows students to gain the understandings, skill sets, and disposition that standardized test items set out to measure.

Informal education (intentional)

Informal education that is intentional, or teaching and learning typically occurring outside of school for a particular purpose, may differ from formal education assessments in how they emerge, but still should be designed before instruction. When one sets out to learn something (intentional learning), goals are set. There may be no restrictions to time and place, but setting goals helps one reflect on one’s progress. Goals align with the overall purpose and can be the driving force behind instruction. It’s important to note that instruction (whether in formal or informal educational contexts) means one person or group imparting understandings, skill sets, and dispositions onto another person or group.

Informal education (incidental)

People are always learning, whether they are aware of it or not. But I would argue that incidental learning alone seldom occurs – for the most part, incidental learning co-exists with intentional learning since humans usually behave around a certain purpose or for a certain reason.  I’ll just say that my thesis pertains to intentional learning only; if someone else wishes to build an argument solely around incidental learning and assessment/instruction, have at it.

I agree with Seburn when he says, I would suggest rather the assessment and instruction are working off each other…only as it applies to formative assessment and only if what is meant by “working off each other” means making adjustments to instruction and learning tactics during designated times (as opposed to some fluid exchange happening continuously).  Education should be heavy in formative assessment because it promotes learning, I concur.  But I don’t agree with no forms of summative assessment being put to use.  Summative assessment tends to get a bad rap because many associate it with tests, quizzes, etc. where these are the primary forms of assessment (i.e., with little-to-no formative assessment). But measuring learning (i.e., summative assessment) also helps students (and all educational stakeholders) see where they’ve been and where they’ve ended up.  It also provides criteria for goal setting and purposeful education (as in the case of performance tasks where rubrics are used).  In other words, both formative and summative assessment complement each other.  In order for them to complement each other, assessment-based instruction needs to replace assessment that emerges after instruction has emerged.  Most enter a car knowing where they will end up and prepared to take an alternative route if necessary.

So, what do you think? What’s the relationship between assessment and instruction? 

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