Writing Classroom Assessment (page 2)
Guidelines for Writing Test Items
Whether your intention is to construct a formative test or a summative test, you now have topics in mind (and expectations of your students for those topics) and you have constructed a TOS that indicates either the test formats you want to use or perhaps the levels of thinking that you want your students to bring to the assessment exercise. You have also “weighted” the test to reflect the emphasis you have given to the various topics. It is time to start writing items. And so now you need to address the third of the five key elements for a high-quality test: how to go about assessing the students.
A key to gathering data for formative or summative purposes is to select the most appropriate format. For instance, if you want to know whether a student can swim, a multiple-choice test (selected response) would not be the best approach. Instead, the best approach would be a performance test that has the student in the water demonstrating an ability to swim!
On the other hand, it is equally important that you select a testing method that does not impede a student’s ability to demonstrate achievement. This brings us to a key point for all of the test formats: Assessing all students fairly does not necessarily mean that all students are assessed in the same manner. An obvious example would be that of a student who has poor writing skills but is sufficiently verbal to express his or her knowledge. It could be the case that you will use a personal communication format with this student while others use an essay format.
A personal communication assessment is a circumstance in which you speak directly with the student. You’ve been through at least a few of these situations in your life. If you have ever been interviewed for admission to a program (e.g., entering the teacher-education program at your college or university) or for a job (e.g., with the principal of a school where you wanted to work) then you know firsthand what a personal communication assessment is all about. Keep in mind, however, that simply reading a test to a student (perhaps because of a language problem) that the other students read to themselves does not constitute a personal communication assessment. Rather, the personal communication technique provides the test taker and the test giver the opportunity to pursue answers beyond the initial response to the question asked.
Advantages and Disadvantages
A personal communication assessment is somewhat of a paradox in that it can be a quick and efficient way of assessing students, but it can also be a very time-consuming approach. If you have just a few questions to ask, a relatively small number of students, and very particular answers that you are looking for, then this is a good approach. On the other hand, if you have a lot of content to address, a large number of students, and you really want to put this approach to use by letting students elaborate on their initial responses, then time may become an issue that prevents using this technique. And keep in mind that as you speak with one student, all of the others will need some work to keep them occupied.
If writing is what you are assessing, then this would not be the most appropriate format. However, in a situation in which writing is not the target of your assessment, personal communication may very well open up an opportunity for success to a student who understands what has been taught but does not have the ability to express it in writing. Another advantage is that it allows you to attend to nonverbal responses such as those that would indicate the student has not understood the question.
It may seem at first that this is a pretty simple approach to testing. We want to make it clear that this is very much an interpersonal dynamic and as such takes not only well-thought-out preparation but also practice in various questioning techniques. Your TOS will guide the writing of the initial prompts. Try to avoid asking questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no. If you must, be prepared to ask a follow-up question such as “Why?” or “Why not?”
When using personal communication there are a number of questioning techniques that you can use as you help students go beyond a superficial response.
Probing Questions. These questions offer the student the opportunity to provide more depth to an answer. For instance, as a follow-up to a response you might ask, “What more can you tell me about that?”
Clarification Questions. If a student’s response is not clear to you, ask a clarification question that offers the opportunity for the student to more precisely phrase the answer. These questions, in particular, help to avoid misinterpreting or misunderstanding the student’s meaning. For example, if the student has told you that deserts are hot and dry, you might ask, “Do you mean that they are hot and dry all the time?”
Elaboration Questions. These questions ask for more description or for bringing in more information about something. If you ask a student what she saw at the zoo and she responds by saying “birds,” an elaboration question would ask for more description of the birds: “What can you tell me about the birds you saw?”
Redirection Questions. It will sometimes be obvious that the test taker has misinterpreted your question or has approached it from an inappropriate perspective. A redirection question clarifies your meaning or draws the student back to the appropriate topic without dismissing what they have already said. In particular, such a question would help to avoid making the test taker feel flustered because he or she missed the point. For example, you might say, “Yes, those are the types of clouds, but what I wanted to know was how they differ from one another?”
Supporting Questions. These questions are very much an example of that interpersonal dynamic we referred to previously. There is no anonymity during a personal communication assessment, and so personal vulnerability is very much out there on display. To maintain the flow of such an assessment when an answer is not quite correct or the student has realized that he or she is “in trouble,” a supporting question provides support for what has been said but provides direction for overcoming the difficulty. For instance, a student has listed four of the six main characters in a story you have asked about, and now you see that pleading look in the eyes hoping that they’ve all been covered. You might say, “Those four are correct. Were there any other characters that we discussed?”
If you start paying attention to the questions that people ask you will begin to see these various formats. You will need to practice using them in your conversations with students (and others) before you can use them effectively as part of an assessment.
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