Characteristics of Quality Assessment

Quality assessment information provides accurate estimates of student performance and enables teachers or other decision makers to make appropriate decisions. The concept of assessment validity captures these essential characteristics and the extent that an assessment actually measures what it is intended to measure, and permits appropriate generalizations about students' skills and abilities. If the assessment is valid, we can safely generalize that the student will likely do as well on similar items not included on the assessment. The results of quality  assessment, in short, represent something beyond how students perform on a certain task or a particular set of items; they represent how a student performs on the objective which those items were intended to assess.

Characteristics of quality assessment for classroom purposes:

*The content of the assessments (the knowledge and skills assessed) should match the teacher's educational objectives and instructional emphases.

*The items should represent the full range of knowledge and skills that are the primary targets of instruction.

*Expectations for student performance should be clear.

*The assessment should be free of extraneous factors which unnecessarily confuse or inadvertently cue student responses.

Findings from Cognitive Psychology

Analysis of Traditional Views

Methods of assessment are determined by our beliefs about learning. According to early theories of learning, complex higher-order skills had to be acquired bit-by-bit by breaking learning down into a series of prerequisite skill, a building-blocks-of-knowledge approach. It was assumed incorrectly that after basic skills had been learned by rote, they could be assembled into complex understandings and insight. However, evidence from contemporary cognitive psychology indicates that all learning requires that the learner think and actively construct evolving mental models.

From today's cognitive perspective, meaningful learning is reflective, constructive, and self-regulated. People are seen not as mere recorders of factual information but as creators of their own unique knowledge structures. To know something is not just to have received information but to have interpreted it and related it to other knowledge one already has. In addition, we now recognize the importance of knowing not just how to perform, but also when to perform and how to adapt that performance to new situations. Thus, the presence or absence of discrete bits of information-which is typically the focus of traditional multiple-choice assessments-is not of primary importance in the assessment of meaningful learning. Rather, what is important is how and whether students organize, structure, and use that information in context to solve complex problems.

Cognitive Psychology

Contrary to past views of learning, cognitive psychology suggests that learning is not linear, but that it proceeds in many directions at once and at an uneven pace. Conceptual learning is not something to be delayed until a particular age or until all the basic facts have been mastered. People of all ages and ability levels constantly use and refine concepts. Furthermore, there is tremendous variety in the modes and speed with which people acquire knowledge, in the attention and memory capabilities they can apply to knowledge acquisition and performance, and in the ways in which they can demonstrate the personal meaning they have created.

Current evidence about the nature of learning makes it apparent that instruction which strongly emphasizes structured drill and practice on discrete, factual knowledge does students a major disservice. Learning isolated facts and skills is more difficult without meaningful ways to organize the information and make it easy to remember. Also, applying those skills later to solve real-world problems becomes a separate and more difficult task. Because some students have had such trouble mastering decontextualized "basics," they are rarely given the opportunity to use and develop higher-order thinking skills.

Recent studies of the integration of learning and motivation also have highlighted the importance of affective and metacognitive skills in learning. For example, recent research suggests that poor thinkers and problem solvers differ from good ones not so much in the particular skills they possess as in their failure to use them in certain tasks. Acquisition of knowledge skills is not sufficient to make one into a competent thinker or problem solver. People also need to acquire the disposition to use the skills and strategies, as well as the knowledge of when and how to apply them. These are appropriate targets of assessment.

The role of the social context of learning in shaping higher-order cognitive abilities and dispositions has also received attention over the past several years. It has been noted that real-life problems often require people to work together as a group in problem-solving situations, yet most traditional instruction and assessment have involved independent rather than small group work. Now, however, it is postulated that groups facilitate learning in several ways: modeling effective thinking strategies, scaffolding complicated performances, providing mutual constructive feedback, and valuing the elements of critical thought. Group assessments, thus, can be important.

Important Trends in Assessment

Since the influence of assessment on curriculum and instruction is now widely acknowledged, educators, policymakers, and others are turning to alternative assessment methods as a tool for educational reform. The movement away from traditional, multiple-choice assessments to alternative assessments-variously called authentic assessment or performance assessment-has included a wide variety of strategies such as open-ended questions, exhibits, demonstrations, hands-on execution of experiments, computer simulations, writing in many disciplines, and portfolios of student work over time. These terms and assessment strategies have led the quest for more meaningful assessments which better capture the significant outcomes we want students to achieve and better match the kinds of tasks which they will need to accomplish in order to assure their future success.