Assessment to Improve Student Learning

Raana Jilani

One of the glaring disadvantages of relying on traditional testing as a method of assessment is that it promotes ‘teaching to the test’. Classroom activities become geared toward the test and the test scores, while actual learning gets side-tracked. Assessment experts, therefore, are of the view that tests should be replaced by some authentic method of assessment – a method that would not only assess what a student knows but also what they can do with that knowledge. Another argument for this view is that tests and exams, the way they are used in our schools, take away all the pleasure of learning. The school routine becomes a drudgery for students and the classroom emphasis on test preparation limits learning to rote memorization and then, regurgitation of facts.

imagesUse of high-stakes tests at certain levels, for example college entrance, may be justified on some grounds and that’s why we see that they are still around. However, children deserve some opportunity to enjoy learning before they are physically and mentally ready to take the pressure and stress of competitive exams. In schools, we need to create an environment where children can learn easily and happily and feel in charge of their learning. The American educationist John Holt believes that, “children do not need to be made to learn” because every child is born with what Albert Einstein called, “the holy curiosity of inquiry.” Schools should help spur this curiosity, as well as feed it.

This is where portfolios come in. Artists and designers have used it to showcase their best work, but for some time now portfolios have become a tool for performance assessment. By definition, a portfolio is a collection of one’s best work, selected from a larger body of work accomplished over a period of time. As an assessment method, portfolios are constructed in much the same way, providing an authentic body of evidence of an individual’s achievements. So, a student portfolio contains several samples of the student’s work and related material that depict his/her activities and accomplishments in one or more school subjects, some evidence of the student’s reflection and self-evaluation, and the criteria for judging the quality of the work.

Unlike a traditional test that attempts to evaluate a lifetime’s learning in a snapshot of two or three hours, portfolios give a holistic picture of an individual’s knowledge, skills and abilities acquired over time. A portfolio provides a good look at what an individual is capable of doing as well as highlighting his/her growth over time.

Writing portfolios are a common assessment tool in American high schools and universities. In fact, it was for the assessment of writing that portfolios were first used as an assessment instrument in 1983. The teachers who use writing portfolios instead of multiple choice questions (MCQ) or essays for assessment are basically of the view that a student’s performance on MCQs about grammar and vocabulary is a very incomplete measure of their writing skills.

Portfolios can be of various types, depending on the purpose of assessment. For example, for several years Aga Khan University- Institute for Educational Development has been using portfolios for the assessment of student teachers’ performance over an academic semester. These portfolios contain samples of students’ papers, their lesson plans and teaching materials and their reflective notes on their own teaching practice.

Another type of portfolio that can be used in elementary schools is a portfolio of project work children do at school.  A number of universities around the world, especially business schools and medical colleges, have adopted Project-based Learning (PBL) as a way to facilitate the development of students’ critical, creative and problem-solving skills and autonomy in learning. This method of instruction engages students in real-world tasks and requires them to draw from many sources of information and disciplines. A portfolio of project work gives them an opportunity to present the outcome of their efforts in an authentic way. In these approaches, the focus of all instructional activity is on learning and, not test scores. Ongoing feedback from teachers not only provides a way of assessing students’ performance but also keeps the focus on learning. PBL as a method of teaching and portfolios for assessment provide an interesting learning-centered combination for schools.

In 2011, Aga Khan University Examination Board introduced its new assessment initiative for middle school (grades VI-VIII) called Project Portfolio which brings together the two approaches mentioned above. For the last three years, this programme is being run successfully in several schools across the country and has received very positive reviews from educators. Teachers’ and students’ enthusiasm about Project Portfolio clearly indicates that when the central concern of classroom activities is ‘learning’ not test scores, the process becomes enjoyable as well as rewarding, both for the teachers and the students.

 – Ms Raana Jilani is Assistant Manager, Middle School, Aga Khan University Examination Board.

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