Social and Cultural Foundations of American Education/Feedback/Effective Measurements

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How can we construct effective measurements, including exams?

Ask any high school student what his or her goals regarding school are, and the answer will most likely have something to do with grades; these answers will vary from “I just want to pass” to “I want to make an A” to the most ambitious “I want to be valedictorian.” All of these replies point to this one simple truth in high school, that it is all about the grades, and this, in turn, means that it is all about the assessment. The problem is, school should be about learning, not having fantastic test-taking skills or a stellar ability to perform well on homework assignments, so the tricky part is left up to teachers: how to construct effective measurements of student abilities and learning.

Use a Variety of Measurements and Accommodate All Learners[edit]

I asked Dr. Chris Mason, the principal at the private boarding high school where I teach, what kinds of assessments he thinks teachers should use in their classrooms. He listed, “observations of students, verbal assessments, written assignments, (and) portfolios” (C. Mason, personal communication, September 21, 2007). It is crucial to use a variety of methods because students all have different learning styles, and it would be unfair to design just a certain type of measurement that would work well with only a certain type of learner.

Again, measurements should accommodate all learners, whether it is allowing for different learning styles, or considering students who may have learning disabilities or have other disabilities such as ADHD. Therefore, design all assignments and assessments with these students in mind. School guidance counselor, Joy Groves, advises to not create tests and assignment documents that appear disorganized or cluttered (having too-little white space) and if a test is very long, to divide it into sections (J. Groves, personal communication, September 22, 2007). Another thing to do is to make sure every student has plenty of time to complete in-class assignments and exams. Dr. Mason encourages making accommodations for students with different ability levels, as long as the accommodations are “reasonable and doable” (C. Mason, personal communication, September 21, 2007).

Make Homework Meaningful[edit]

The value of homework is currently a hot debate in education, and positions on whether or not it should be given vary greatly. If you, as a teacher, choose to give homework, you need to at least be sure that the homework is meaningful. It should not be just “busy work” (Rademacher, 2000).

Not only must a teacher make sure homework is meaningful, but the teacher must make sure students understand why they are doing the assignment. There must be a purpose, and it must be apparent. Acceptable purposes include: gathering background information in preparation for a new lesson or unit; practice; checking for understanding (Checkley, 2003) (with remediation to follow if the teacher finds understanding is lacking); or review (NEA, 2006).

Finally, make sure the homework is actually worth the students’ time. If you give a lengthy homework assignment, such as a week-long project, make sure it involves higher-level thinking (Checkley, 2003) and covers multiple topics or fully a major theme.

Create Effective Exams[edit]

Regarding effective exams, Mrs. Groves again uses that word, “variety.” If using the common type questions (multiple-choice, true/false, matching, and fill-in-the-blank type), she reasserts the idea of varying which types of questions appear. “Teachers could also, over time, develop enough different types of questions that they could create an extra section on their tests, and students could choose what sections they want to answer.” She explains how this allows students to be tested in the ways in which they are most comfortable, and the test itself therefore cannot “weaken what students have to tell you” (J. Groves, personal communication, September 22, 2007).

More effective than these common types of questions are those that require more critical thinking, typically short-answer responses. Dr. Mason prefers his staff to create tests that “require use of higher order thinking skills” and that call for identifying and solving problems (C. Mason, personal communication, September 21, 2007). Though they may be more cumbersome for teachers to grade, the short answer and even essay responses give the greatest opportunity for students to show what they really know, whereas in other question types, such as multiple-choice, they can simply guess. Mrs. Groves offered, “I do think it would be great to see writing prompts more prevalent on tests in all courses, including science and math, because that is shown as a national weakness, and you see colleges focusing on it.” She also mentions the new focus on writing by the re-designed SAT (J. Groves, personal communication, September 22, 2007).

Consider Alternative Assessments[edit]

A new trend in education is alternative assessments. Dr. Mason says, “I like them for students with learning differences” and Mrs. Groves says, “I definitely think alternative assessments are great ideas, whether it’s writing, group presentations, group projects” (C. Mason, personal communication, September 21, 2007, & J. Groves, personal communication, September 22, 2007). The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory defines alternative assessment as “any type of assessment in which students create a response to a question or task” in contrast to “traditional assessments,” where “students choose a response from a given list, such as multiple-choice, true/false, or matching” (NCREL, 2007).

The best kinds of alternative assessments are those that are closely related to real-world events (CCCOE, 2003). For example, in a business class, students may have to go through a mock process of purchasing a car, renting a house, and establishing a household budget. One specific assignment I’ve used in the past is a writing project designed to replace a more traditional test on the book, To Kill a Mockingbird. The assignment gives students four separate options, such as a critique option, a “what if?” creative writing option regarding a key character, and an option to compare and contrast a major plot point with how it’s presented in the book versus how it’s presented in the film. Each prompt requires critical understanding of the text, and students get to choose which options suits them best. Additionally, just the mere fact of being able choose sets the students at ease, because they often can feel overwhelmed with how much they are told to do and how little they feel they can choose to do.

Assess Frequently[edit]

You should assess students constantly in order to properly monitor their progress, and also to have the opportunity for interventions before students get too far behind (Many, 2006). A crucial step in the teaching process is tutoring after an exam (C. Mason, personal communication, September 21, 2007). Frequent assessment is also a way for you to know if you are teaching effectively. If assessments clearly show that students are not learning, you may need to alter your means of instruction

Keep it Simple[edit]

No matter how inventive your assessments may be, make sure to never make them too confusing. Write clear questions. Give clear instructions on assignments. Don’t give them “trick questions.” Remember the goal is not to “win” in a game, but to give the student a chance (and a comfortable chance) to express what he or she has learned or can do.

For example, the following assignment is a challenge in itself just to understand what the teacher is looking for:

Write 6 sentences using the verb, “to be” in present tense. Write 6 sentences using 6 different action verbs in the present tense. Use 12 different subjects, intermixing nouns and pronouns.

The purpose of this assignment is to make sure students can correctly form verbs in the present tense, so a more effective way of presenting this would be to create a worksheet something like:

Complete the following sentences using the verb “to be” in present tense.

I _______________________________________________________.

My uncle _______________________________________________________.

The dogs _______________________________________________________.

They _______________________________________________________.

These books _______________________________________________________.

She _______________________________________________________.

Complete the following sentences using action verbs in present tense. Don’t use the same verb more than once.

He _______________________________________________________.

The basketball team _______________________________________________________.

Your teacher _______________________________________________________.

You _______________________________________________________.

We _______________________________________________________.

That dog _______________________________________________________.

Give your students every opportunity to be successful.

Give Students a Chance to Think[edit]

Life is just one big series of problems that need solutions, and the best way to get young people ready for the real world is to train them in solving problems. Whenever possible, give students assignments that make them think and figure, or, as Dr. Mason says, “require diagnosis and providing a plan to address a problem” (C. Mason, personal communication, September 21, 2007). Remember that education should not be all memorizing and regurgitation. Education is not merely about what students are to take in, but it is also about what students are able to put out.

Examples of this strategy in action:

History class
Rather than merely summarizing events and plotting them on a timeline, analyze a situation considering problem/solution. What was the problem? How was it solved? How might it have been solved instead? Strategies of the Confederacy during the Civil War would be interesting to analyze like this.
Math class
Show a fully-worked algebra problem that is solved incorrectly, and ask the student to identify the place where the mistake was made and to then correctly solve the problem.
English class
Discuss a character in literature with a significant flaw, such as Torvald in Henrik Ibsen’s play, A Doll’s House. How did Torvald’s actions lead up to an unsatisfying ending for him (his wife leaves him), and how might he have changed to prevent his dismal outcome?


In the American school, assessment is the measure of all education, and this is critical to the point where it can seem like it is all education is. Assessment must be created carefully, and conscientious to needs of the student, both directly, and indirectly, in the case that it must provide adequate information to you, the teacher, so that you can, in turn, further help the student. Remember the importance of variety, incorporate higher-level thinking and writing as much as possible, and consider alternatives to common types of assessment while keeping in mind that your goal is not just to teach state standards, but also to prepare young adults for the rest of their lives.

Multiple Choice Questions[edit]

Click to reveal the answer.

Why is it important to use a variety of methods of assessment?
A. So students don’t get bored.
B. To make it more difficult for students to cheat.
C. To make it fair to students with different learning styles.
D. So you can have different tests.

C. To make it fair to students with different learning styles.

What might be considered an “alternative assessment”?
A. A reading assignment for homework.
B. A test including multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, and matching problems.
C. An exam consisting entirely of short-answer questions.
D. A portfolio project.

D. A portfolio project.

Which of the following are new trends in education?
A. Questioning the validity of homework and alternative assessment.
B. Lower-level thinking homework assignments and alternative assessment.
C. Lower-level thinking homework assignments and traditional assessment.
D. Questioning the validity of homework and traditional assessment.

A. Questioning the validity of homework and alternative assessment.

Which type of assignment might best prepare a student for the real world?
A. Participating in a mock job interview.
B. Learning a high amount of SAT preparation vocabulary.
C. Writing an essay on the impact of a historical event.
D. Reading a modern novel and taking a multiple-choice exam on it.

A. Participating in a mock job interview.

Which of the following is not a good practice in creating an exam?
A. Make sure there is minimal white space on the exam.
B. Vary the types of questions.
C. Try to incorporate short answer or essay questions whenever possible.
D. Consider an alternative assessment.

A. Make sure there is minimal white space on the exam.

Essay Question[edit]

Click to reveal a sample response.

Consider the subject area you teach or plan to teach and also consider what you’ve learned regarding alternative assessment. Discuss an alternative assessment assignment you might give in your subject area and explain why the assignment would be more effective than a traditional test.

Alternative assessment is getting to be a trend in American education, and for good reason. It offers students a better chance of showing what they have actually learned and what they actually can do, rather than what they can memorize. An excellent place to use alternative assessment would be in a theatre arts class as a final assessment on Oedipus Rex.

To create an alternative assessment for Oedipus Rex, I would design several assignment options, each requiring a critical understanding of the play, yet each appealing to different styles of learning. A couple of the assignment options I’d present are as follows.

One assignment option would be to choose a critical moment in the play and rewrite a monologue in a way that a modern teenager would speak. The student must then act out the monologue with the same passion and emotion the character in Oedipus Rex would be feeling, but with a modern twist to the dialogue. This assignment would require an understanding of the text itself, and of the subtext involving the emotions of the principal characters.

Another assignment option would be to write a short story based on “what if?” The “what if?” would be asking what if a major plot point had happened differently. This assignment would require creativity and a solid understanding of the cause and effect within the play, and also an understanding of the characters and their motivations, because the student would have to know them well enough to write fresh text true to what has already been established.

This assessment would be effective because it would give students a chance to choose an assignment they are most comfortable with and therefore a greater feeling of confidence in their work. It is also better than a more typical assessment that would involve recalling facts, because it focuses on the actual learning, rather than memorization. It focuses on theme and characters and understanding subtext.


  • Checkley, K. (2003). When homework works. Classroom Leadership, 7(1). Retrieved November 17, 2007 from
  • Contra Costa County Office of Education. (2003). Assessment beyond standardized testing. Retrieved September 21, 2007, from http ://
  • Many, T. W. & Jakicic, C. (2006). A steadily flowing stream of information gives teachers much-needed data. Journal of Staff Development, 27(1), 46-48.
  • National Education Association. (2006). Helping your student get the most out of homework. Retrieved November 17, 2007 from
  • North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. (2007). Alternative assessment.Retrieved September 22, 2007 from http ://
  • Rademacher, J. A. (2000). Involving students in assignment evaluation. Intervention in School and Clinic, 35(3), 151-156.