Why a test is not about the grades

In my last post I talked about the use of assessment and how the most common use of tests and exams was more about ranking students and judging teachers than learning. I covered an approach officially taken by the New Zealand government schools called Assessment for Learning, where assessment is not something to be worried about but something is seen as part of the learning process. If handled correctly, assessment is NOT about the grade, it’s about learning.  Assessment should be used to identify gaps in skills and knowledge to the individual learner and then followed by a learning process to work on those deficiencies so as to grow.


Here’s where you (I) went wrong

My whole career and recent conversations with students in multiple schools show that the behaviour of teachers after a test or exam clearly indicates that the purpose of current testing is still about ranking students and identifying where the teaching was deficient. In the absence of a full class of perfect scores, teachers naturally focus on ‘where they have gone wrong’. In still predominantly teacher-driven classrooms, the teacher is led by questions of:

  • “What did I miss?”
  • “What did I not teach enough?”
  • “Did I explain it clearly?”

This leads teachers to start “going over” commonly incorrectly answered questions or poor essay segments with the whole class, in an attempt to address unforeseen deficiencies in their teaching. Like with any whole-class teaching, this results in:

  • some having to sit through questions they got right in the first place
  • sometimes having to listen to what is actually the same explanation again
  • some learners not listening as a poor ranking has made them despondent

Time to Reflect

Assessment for Leanring means the class behaves differently.  Here in New Zealand we are just entering our national exam season and many high schools have just finished a round of practice exams and students are now getting their results back. So it is an important time to consider what happens after assessments and how it indicates our true priorities in schools. 

Teachers summarising class results and weaknesses to the class is the strongest indication that schools are not about learning. Learning itself is a personal and social pursuit. What should happen after assessment is individual and group activity aimed at individuals exploring and working with others on their obvious gaps in knowledge and skills, this reinforces they learning. The teacher’s role after assessment is one of reflective activity design for small groups and individuals, not re-teaching.

This reflection phase is probably the most important part of the learning process and yet traditionally most teachers will quickly go over two or three class weak spots, hoping that the students go home and revise their gaps, and then move immediately on to the next topic. True learning means any post assessment reflection and goal setting is more important than the initial teacher delivery of curriculum and should be afforded significant time accordingly. 


Learning design

Here is a quick summary of activity ideas that will allow individuals to explore their own personal gaps in skills and knowledge rather than the focus being on where the teacher may have not made things clear to the whole class. This is such an important but often neglected stage of the learning process and it is time for teachers to take it as seriously as they do delivering content.

  • Make learning progressions permanently visible to students so they can always be building on what’s needed to attain the next level/grade. This might be on the wall or weekly resources with examples so that the targets for each level of learning are clear from the outset.
  • Build a peer-support system as normal class behaviour. Encourage classes to do group sharing activities where they pool all their gaps in knowledge in the middle of the group and identify where the group can solve each other’s deficiencies. At the moment, I suggest groups use paper, posits or online use Padlet and Google Jamboard.
  • Ensure that the class as a whole has a shared chat area online so that learners with gaps can get assistance from anyone in the room. I use Google chat and Google Classroom Stream.
  • Remove the fear culture around being wrong as I mentioned in this post just recently and work on the basis of all outputs and attempts just being drafts or prototypes to rapidly receive feedback multiple times in a week by peers as well as teacher. 
  • Here’s a good post on the issues that students can have with reflection and how to overcome them.