Not All Exams are Created Equal (or Have Equal Results)

We all know that assessments are an important part of any learning process and curriculum. Not only do they provide motivation and a framework for students to master content and opportunities for them to demonstrate new skills, they also can be used to inform pedagogical practices as teachers collect data that can lead to more focused and differentiated instruction. This information, in turn, allows educators to better meet the needs of particular students. But the very best exams are structured to do even more: they help students learn by posing insightful questions that encourage students to connect dots and develop original ideas.

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So what are the necessary ingredients for a great assessment? There are, of course, many different formats and approaches that teachers use to evaluate the learning of their students. But I believe they all should measure a full array of knowledge and critical thinking. Exams should also ensure horizontal alignment, such as the content that students are being taught, with the vertical alignment, that includes grade-level expectations through accumulating and then evaluating summative data.

Perhaps most importantly, quality assessments should be highly accurate in their measurement of key learning objectives without duplicating sets of knowledge. Finally, assessments should meet high standards of fairness, reliability, and validity. Only in this way can teachers evaluate the range of topics covered in any given class, including core content, problem solving individually and collaboratively, critical thinking, and even metacognition. And in doing so, teachers may create and offer exams that not only reflect what has been learned, but also encourage learning even while students are in the process of being assessed.

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