Rachel Phillips, BHP Team, Learning Scientist
Washington, USA

Note: Rachel moderated a discussion on this topic in the online BHP Teacher Community November 2017. View the archive here!

Oh, assessments. They weren’t much fun as a student, and they haven’t become any more fun as a teacher! They’re hard to create, hard to grade, hard to return, hard to explain…just HARD. But, I’m sure we can all agree, they are a necessary evil. And I don’t mean a necessary evil in the interest of accountability for students, teachers, and schools, but rather in the interest of student learning and as part of that, teacher decision-making. It’s in the interest of student learning in particular that BHP takes its approach to assessment.

As you may have read in the course teaching guide, BHP provides a multitude of opportunities for you and your students to assess their understanding throughout the course. This is done through activities that use rubrics, lesson closings, Investigations, projects, and lesson quizzes. What BHP does not provide (and won’t be providing anytime soon), is guidance on how you should grade your students. First, I’ll explain a little bit about why we provide so many assessment resources. Second, I’ll explain why it might sometimes feel like it’s not enough.

We provide a lot of assessment opportunities, both formal or informal, so that students’ understanding and abilities can be examined in a variety of different ways. It’s important to provide students with multiple pathways to success, and it’s hard to do this if you only offer one kind of assessment. In addition, if you don’t have different modalities for assessing student understanding, you might only assess a sliver of what your students know and are able to do. For example, lots of studies have shown that multiple-choice tests are really good for assessing students’ test-taking skills, but aren’t helpful for assessing what they know about the content in question. However, we realize it’s a lot to ask for a teacher to assess students in a bunch of different ways…so we thought we could at least remove part of the burden by providing you with those assessments.

Another thing we strongly encourage is using these assessments formatively (or, as I like to think of it, informatively). Instead of making every quiz, test, or paper a one-shot opportunity a la summative assessments, give students the chance to revisit and revise their work—it’s hands-down one of the best ways for students to learn. That’s why students can take our multiple-choice lesson quizzes over and over again. It’s not so everyone can score 100 percent. It’s so that everyone can learn the content.

Speaking of multiple-choice assessments, we often field questions about why there aren’t any whole unit quizzes or tests. As you know, we don’t expect anyone to learn all the content in the course, so we don’t want to elevate or highlight specific content and send a message that your students must know this one thing or that other thing. (The exception is that students must know and be able to apply the BHP essential skills and core concepts; however, those are not easily measured or assessed through multiple-choice questions.) We created some short quizzes at the lesson level to ensure that students are aware of particular content there, but we want students and teachers walking away from the units with big ideas rather than getting lost in the weeds.

We really stress the use of rubrics throughout the course. We do this for a few reasons. Consistent standards give students a clear understanding of how to meet course expectations and succeed. This helps them understand the elements of an assignment and what’s expected of them. Additionally, using the same rubrics throughout the course helps students track their own improvement, which helps them to be metacognitive about their own learning (just like with BHP Score and the Investigation writing activities). Assessment outcomes should not just be used for driving instructional decisions, but for helping students to take ownership of their own learning. This is especially true in a course like BHP where we are asking you, the teacher, to take on the role of lead learner. This lead-learner role gives students a lot of agency and power, and requires them to take ownership of their own learning. And that includes assessing their own understanding.

Okay, so back to that grading issue. Why don’t we provide guidance in the course about how to grade students? The bottom line is we want to leave grading to your discretion. There are so many factors–local context, such as your school and your students–that we can’t anticipate, and we don’t think it’s fair or reasonable to suggest how you should go about assigning grades. We realize it’s awfully tempting to simply convert BHP Score results into a grade, or use the multiple-choice quizzes as another measure; however, we urge you to think about YOUR overall assessment approach in the course and decide how YOU want to grade rather than defaulting to some of those easy-action options. We don’t expect you to use every asset in the course, so if we provide you with a particular grading framework, we’re also making instructional decisions for you by asking you to use the assets we deem worthy for your students. You know your students best and are in the best position to curate resources appropriately.

Questions or comments about assessments in BHP? I’ll be hosting an Exchange on the topic November 6-8 in the online BHP Teacher Community. This link will take you directly to the Exchanges group. Please join in the conversation!

About the author: Rachel Phillips is a learning scientist who develops curriculum and conducts research for the Big History Project. She has taught at the K-12, college, and graduate levels. Rachel was formerly Director of Research and Evaluation at Code.org. Prior to that, she was faculty at the University of Washington and program director for a National Science Foundation-funded research project. She approaches all her work from an interdisciplinary perspective.

Image: Students writing their GCSE exam in classroom. ©Getty.

2 thoughts on “Assessment in the Interest of Student Learning

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