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Strike a Balance in Assessment

Written by Wendy B. Sanchez and Nicole F. Ice
(News Bulletin, May/June 2005)

Standardized testing is often a separate activity from the daily assessment that occurs in teachers’ classrooms. The lack of alignment between these two important areas of assessment is a reason for concern; however, there are ways to balance periodic standardized tests with classroom assessments.

It is important to keep in mind the differences between standardized assessment and classroom assessment. Although the goal of all assessment is to maximize students’ success, the purpose of standardized assessment is primarily to measure the extent of students’ learning for accountability and comparison purposes. NCTM’s Principles and Standards for School Mathematics says that classroom assessment “should be more than merely a test at the end of instruction to see how students perform under special conditions.... Assessment should enhance students’ learning.” Classroom assessment is focused on both students’ procedural skills and conceptual understanding. It includes the use of a variety of techniques—such as direct observation, tests, and projects—to determine students’ progress on a day-to-day basis and to direct instruction. Although standardized assessment is not necessarily used to guide teaching, thoughtful use of classroom assessment methods can promote learning that will enable students to understand mathematics and perform well on standardized assessments.

Consider the following state standard from Virginia for third-grade mathematics:

The student will
a) divide regions and sets to represent a fraction; and
b) name and write the fractions represented by a given model (area/region, length/measurement, and set). Fractions (including mixed numbers) will include halves, thirds, fourths, eighths, and tenths.

Although students need practice on the skills related to this standard, classroom assessment can include a deeper treatment of the standard to enable the teacher to evaluate understanding and to plan instruction. For example, students could be asked to perform tasks such as the one shown below. (This sample task is available on the Mathematics Assessment Resource Service [MARS] Web site.)


Students who complete tasks like this one have opportunities both to practice skills and to work on performance tasks related to state standards. They are better prepared to use mathematics in everyday life and to answer any questions that might appear on a standardized test.

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