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The Role of Assessment in Learning Process


Assessment has been an integral part of the formal education system since its inception. There can be no argument about the role that the practice has to play in the measurement of the effectiveness of the education systems in America and worldwide; and while engaged in one of these systems, there is no escaping it.

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Questions are however being asked about the role of assessment in influencing the main purpose of attending school in the first place, learning. Does a session of assessment at the end of an academic session have any positive or negative influence on the effectiveness of learning during the session? Is there a way that assessment can be formulated to cater to the needs of the student before the assessment itself? This paper seeks to study some of the aspects of concern in regards to the positive or negative effects or assessment on learning.

The History of Universal Assessment in the US

In the early decades of the last century, we saw the adoption of standardized testing systems for the addition into college. Some of these tests have over the years retained their identity to date. The tests however evolved past their original scope and extended their relevance to the ranking of states based on the average score in the SAT.

In public schools, the need for a standardized method of testing students arose after a need for the school administration to be accountable was highlighted in the 1960s. Thus district-wide testing programs were set up and have continued to play their role to date. These systems prompted the formulation of similar statewide ventures in the 1970s. Also in the 1970s and extending in the 1980s, the foundation to the road to the national assessment programs of today was laid.

In 2002, the then American president George W. Bush further increased the dependence of the universal grading system in schools as a tool of academic improvement by signing school reform measures requiring every pupil in the United States educational system to undergo mathematics and reading tests starting from grade three up to grade eight.

Purposes of standardized assessments

There are several justifications that are given for the use of the standardized system in the education sector. Additionally, there are others that have been deduced as being the true motivations of its use.

Public schools accountability

Since these are funded by the taxpayer, arguments go that there has to be a way of measuring the effectiveness of the learning process that the students are undergoing. The tests are then used as tools to rank the schools on the basis that those with better scores have a better learning efficiency than those with lower grades.

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Consequently, the persons who control the funding of these schools use the ranking to reward the schools ranked higher with more resources and the ones that have low scores with sanctions.

Improvement of the academic performance of the country

Proponents of the assessment say claim that by knowing the level of academic progression of a student, then new heights of excellence can be set so as to generally raise the standards of education in the country. This is based on the assumption that the students will be highly motivated to beat previous records set by their predecessors; or they will be willing to improve on their current score in the next test (McLaughlin, 2005).

This assumption has been faulted in that as much as some students will apply themselves with increased vigor after viewing their ranking, not all the students respond in a similar manner, and some of them end up giving up altogether.

Detection of underperforming students

The testing system, through ranking, can detect any student that is below the expected bracket of performance. In this case, the teacher is supposed to take steps to improve the academic prospects of the concerned student. This is to ensure that no child is left behind by others in terms of education.

These tests may however be having the exact opposite effects with the student giving up together in the effort to pass the test.

Assessment as a motivation to study

The use of assessment as a tool to motivate study stems from an assumption that has weathered the test of time that by maximizing anxiety among the student, then their motivation to learn increases in the same manner. Most of the policy makers in the education sector have gone through similar systems in the past; and are strong advocates of making the “going get tough” so that the “tough can get going” among the students.

The proponents preach that by confronting the students with tougher challenges over time, they will learn how to work harder and smatter thereby generally improving their academic outlook and the education system as a whole.

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However, some of the students are not captured by the system; although some of them will redouble their efforts and manage to surmount their bigger challenges, a good number of them who were already failing will not view the new challenge as an opportunity to grow; but on the centrally as another event of failure.

Effects of assessment on the education system

Effects on the Teachers

Ideally, the teacher is supposed to assess the day-by-day progress of all the students in the classroom during the lessons (Benjamin, 1984). This would help the teacher make crucial decisions about which part in the student’s curriculum he will put more effort in; this in the exact opposite of the end of the year testing when no other effort can be put in and the student is labeled either to have passed or failed.

The standardized system drains so many resources in the educational system that the teacher is left in a situation where s/he is unable to gather any data regarding the everyday progress of the student.

Additionally, since the issue of accountability is a major determining factor of the measurement of success of the teacher, s/he spend all the time trying to achieve a favorable average in the classroom; consequently, some members of his/her class may suffer since the average can be attained without them.

The teachers may also succumb to the temptation of controlling the students using assessments; the motivation to control might stem both from a need to cover for shortfalls in teaching or to promote learning.

Effects of assessment on the students

For a system that is designed to help them, the assessment may be the major cause of their failure. One of the characteristics of the standardized testing system is the public ranking of schools according to their performance. Therefore if a student has failed, the public knows that she or he has failed. If this is repeated every year, then the pain and discouragement of public humiliation of the students will not influence a favorable outcome of their education.

The standardized system does not take into account the different academic and social backgrounds of all the students that undergo it; for example, the Texas TAKS system has been blamed for being biased against students from an ethnic minority background; the system has been blamed for undermining the native languages of these students in an attempt to have them learn English. This for example has led many students of Mexican descent to feel left out by the American education system; these students are left trapped in limbo between losing their culture and heritage and failing to assimilate into the mainstream American culture. Additionally, these minority students usually go and are concentrated in the same schools, thus denying them the opportunity to blend into the American culture. It is estimated that about 50% of these students go to a school where 30% of the school population is made up of minority students [Black & Valenzuela, 2004, p.4; Ruiz de Velasco & Fix, 2001, p.3.].

These schools are also located in districts where funding for education is significantly lower than those in upmarket districts; the schools in the upmarket segments have been shown to spend over USD30, 000 per student; the schools in the lower markets, where the minority students go to are allocated up to ten times less that amount [Darling-Hammond, 2004, p.6].

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Therefore, when two students are going to sit for the same test that will grade them as equals, one will have confidence from a history of excellent social and academic preparation while the other will be doomed to fail even before sitting.

Additionally, a student who realized his or her academic and/or social disadvantage will be geared primarily toward orienting his or her studies into a manner that will enable (them) to pass the standardized assessment. This will deny them the freedom of exploring the academic realm and achieving their greatest possible academic potential.

However, even the successful student may suffer the effects of maltreatment on the hands of their assessors either through frank and unjustifiable abuse of power or through experiences that may be considered normal under a general description of school life; but which still cause emotional anguish. For these students, the effects of their assessment may not be as glaring as for those who fail; however, most will have their self-esteem lowered by the incident and loss of confidence. Some of them will never have anything to do with the subject that caused their suffering ever again.

Formative versus Summative assessment

These two are clearly separate processes; and their goals are fundamentally different (Scriven, 1967). Formative assessment is meant to improve the academic situation of the student. It involves some feedback from the student whereby the student is alerted of his or her academic state and then solutions are formulated in conjunction with the teacher on how this state can be improved. This kind of assessment is aimed at helping the student learn as the areas where s/he has weakness will be discovered and steps taken before grading (Pellegrino, et al, 2001).

Formative assessment will allow the teacher not only to check the student’s progress but also to make it better in the long run. The targets which the student aims to achieve are thus set in advance and are reviewed as the academic program progresses. The student is informed from the very beginning what volume and depth of academic materials s/he are expected to cover so as to avoid getting ambushed in the future (Boud, 1995).

The class (formative) assessment will be used to build the student’s confidence such that they will take over their education and endeavor to beat their own targets rather than those set by an obscure body and to be met at the end of the year. The feedback that the student gets from the teacher is descriptive rather than judgmental and it details the areas where the student ought to improve. With time, the student’s self-assessment will allow him to watch himself grow and thus feel responsible for his/her own success. On the other hand, the teacher will be able to adjust the class instructions to suit the academic needs of each of the students in the class; and will also enable him/her to communicate the progress of the student to the parents/guardian effectively.

The most important effect of formative assessment is that the student does not have the motivation to give up as the process of learning will be continuous throughout school life (Ramsden, 1988).

On the other hand, the goal of summative assessment is to summarily judge the academic position of the student. In this case, the student makes no inputs into the assessment and is passively tested then graded. The feedback to the student is therefore judgmental; and does not seek, in any way to improve the academic prospects of the student; and exists or purposes of grading and certification.

These two methods of assessment, although they sound distinct and independent, cannot be effective if they existed alone in the education system; both of them have to be utilized for the effective assessment of the scholars.

A balance, therefore, has to be struck between the two in order to maximally benefit the students. However, under normal circumstances, the attempts of formative assessment are more often than not modest compared to the time, effort and resources allocated to summative assessment. Therefore, the goals that the assessment sought to achieve are undermined by the same process.

The judgmental nature of summative assessment requires the use of judgmental language; as such, words such as right, wrong, correct, rigorous and fail have such a resounding finality that the prospects of undergoing this assessment bring anxiety to every student’s mind. This is because when the judgment is passed, the student has no other recourse or room to maneuver.

This has the effect of shaping the perceptions of the students in a manner that they will view assessment not as an opportunity to improve their academic standings but as a single event that declares whether they have learned or not; this does not have a very positive impact on the learning process.


Does assessment lead to learning?

Every year that a student undergoes a standardized test, and the result is revealed, a coded message is passed to both the teacher and the student. The examiners cannot, however, control how this message is interpreted by these two persons.

Depending on the outcome and on the responses that these two persons give, the result can be either beneficial or detrimental to the student’s academic welfare. This shows that there is a gap or a deficiency in a process that is aimed at improving these prospects.

To mitigate this effect, then bold steps have to be taken to ensure that the standardized systems are more beneficial than harmful to the students; and that they are achieving the goals set of improving learning in our schools(Eisner, 1993).

References and Bibliography

  1. American Federation of Teachers, National Council on Measurement in Education, and National Education Association, (1990). Standards for Teacher Competence in Educational Assessment of Students. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, vol. 9, no. 4, 1990, pp. 30-32
  2. Benjamin Bloom. (1984).The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-on-One Tutoring. Educational Leadership, 1984, pp. 4-17
  3. Black, B., & Valenzuela, A. (2004). Educational accountability for English language learners in Texas: A retreat from equity. In L. Skrla & J. Scheurich (Eds.), Educational equity and accountability (pp. 215-234). Albany: SUNY Press
  4. Boud, D. (1988). Moving towards autonomy, in Boud, D.J. (Ed.) Developing Student Autonomy in Learning, Second edition. London: Rogan Page, 17-39
  5. Boud, David; (1995): Assessment and learning: contradictory or complementary?
  6. P. Knight (Ed.). Assessment for Learning in Higher Education. London: Kogan Page, 35-48.
  7. Darling-Hammond, L. (2004). The collision of new standards and old inequalities.From “Separate but equal” to “No child left behind”. In D. Meier, A. Kohn, L. Darling-Hammond, T.R. Sizer, & G. Wood (Eds.). Many children left behind: How the No Child Left Behind Act is damaging our children and our schools (pp. 3-32). Boston: Beacon Press
  8. Eisner, E. W. (1993). Reshaping assessment in education: some criteria in search of practice. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 25, 3, 219-233
  9. Escamilla, K. (2001). Bilingual means two: Assessment issues, early literacy and Spanish speaking children. Reading Research Symposium for Second Language Learners (pp. 1–16). Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education
  10. Hager, P., Gonczi, A. & Athanasou, J. (1994). General issues about assessment of competence. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 19, 1, 3-16.
  11. McLaughlin, M., & Shepard, L. (1995). Improving education through standards-based reform. Washington, DC: National Academy of Education
  12. Pellegrino, James W. Naomi Chudowsky, and Robert Glaser, eds. (2001), Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001), p. 14
  13. Ramsden, P. (1988). Studying learning: improving teaching. In Ramsden, P. (Ed.). Improving Learning: New Perspectives. London: Kogan Page, 13-31.
  14. Scriven, M. (1967). The methodology of evaluation. In R. W. Tyler et al (Eds.) Perspectives of Curriculum Evaluation. American Educational Research Association Monograph. Chicago: Rand McNally

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