The Benefits of Traditional Assessment

This post is a bit tongue in cheek. I’m going to argue that there are some advantages of traditional, tests and quizzes, points-based assessment. My goal isn’t to convince people to use traditional assessment over something else. I’m using a pretty traditional system at the moment and I wrote about my philosophy here, but I’ve also used versions of standards-based grading in the past and felt fine about it. In short, I don’t find the results of fancy new assessment systems worth the effort. (I’m also constrained by a policy at my school that pushes me toward something more traditional.)

My goal is to push back on what I see as lazy thinking. The thinking is: X assessment system isn’t traditional, so X must be good. Traditional assessment systems are an easy punching bag, but there are a few things they do well. I worry that too many teachers are building a system to be “not traditional” rather than “to build the best assessment system possible.” They end up successful at being “not traditional” but failing at a bunch of other important things.

I realize that “traditional assessment” is a bit vague. I’m speaking generally about points-based, quizzes and tests, this category is this percent of your grade types of things. It might be a bit vague, but I’ve seen plenty of teachers reject anything that seems even a little similar to those things because it’s “traditional,” and that’s what I want to argue against.

Here are some benefits of traditional assessment:

Spacing. Spaced practice is an important ingredient in long-term retention. With spacing, students don’t only understand proportions today, they understand proportions in a year or five years. In traditional assessment there might be a quiz at the end of the week, a test at the end of the month, and a final at the end of the semester, each with a bit of review beforehand. This is an effective schedule of spacing.

Avoiding binaries of learned/haven’t learned. Traditional assessment doesn’t try to stamp a particular skill or topic as “learned/didn’t learn” but instead gives a number that is more or less a percentage of accuracy, averaged in some way between quizzes, tests, a final, and maybe some other stuff. Trying to say someone has “mastered” a topic (a common theme in nontraditional grading) misunderstands the role of forgetting, false positives, and accuracy. Traditional grading provides more information about the student’s learning and doesn’t mislead students into stamping something “mastered” when they actually haven’t, or when they’re likely to forget it the next day.

Students understand traditional grading. Imagine you walk into a random classroom and ask a random student to explain how the teacher grades them in that class. First, I believe many students — many more than most teachers would think — would be at least a little confused about how they’re assessed. We’re all worse at explaining this stuff than we think. But students generally understand traditional assessment for the simple reason that it’s the default across most of their school experience. I’ve seen too many teachers come up with some fancy assessment system, but it fails because students just don’t understand it very well and don’t take advantage of it. (I take back this argument for any department or school with a consistent and clearly communicated policy for nontraditional assessment across multiple classes.)

Points communicate value. Students spend lots of hours in school, take a bunch of classes at once, complete lots of assignments every week, and constantly have to make decisions about what to prioritize. Many teachers argue that points are meaningless and artificial. They are definitely artificial, but one important function they serve is to communicate what we value. We can’t value everything equally; points communicate which tasks and assignments students should prioritize for the good of their learning.

Traditional grading can better measure effort. Lots of alternative grading systems try to zero in on how much students have learned. They say, “points are silly because they don’t actually mean anything, what even is a point?” And that’s true: points are arbitrary and don’t have a clear meaning. But that flexibility can be a benefit when teachers create ways to get points based on effort. Now these are never perfect, and often lead to “studenting” behaviors that are not linked to learning. But if an assessment system only captures how much students have learned, it can be discouraging for students who are behind or have a hard time in math. Building in some ways to do well based on effort can be an important motivator and signpost for students to see their progress, even if their progress falls short of the course goals or grade-level standards.

My argument is not that all teachers should use a traditional assessment system. Other systems can be great. It’s perfectly possible to address all of these concerns in an alternative system Lots of traditional assessment can also be bad. My argument is that, whatever assessment system you use, don’t only do it because it’s not “traditional.” There are also plenty of bad reasons to use traditional assessment. Some teachers use it because they don’t know of anything different. Others see points and quizzes and tests as tools to coerce or punish students. Others say, “well you’ll have to take a final in college, so you should get practice taking one now.” Whatever your system is, have a good reason for using it, and do your best to use it well.

1 thought on “The Benefits of Traditional Assessment

  1. Pingback: Playful Math Education 162: The Math Games Carnival – Denise Gaskins' Let's Play Math

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