Realities Of classroom assessment

Most teacher-training courses emphasize the kinds of assessments that involve formal techniques such as standardized or teacher-made tests. However, as Peter W. Airasian and Ann M. Jones, Boston College, point out, these assessments take into account only a small portion of the assessment needs of classroom teachers.

Airasian and Jones believe that standard teacher training does not adequately prepare teachers for the important task of informally gathering information to make instructional decisions throughout each school day.

Teachers continually make both conscious and unconscious assessments of students’ responseto lessons and of classroom interactions. Their use of this information to plan instruction, guide behavior and maintain order is a vital aspect of their work and ought to be given careful consideration.

First impressions

In talking with teachers, these researchers have found that they generally take into account a very broad and complex set of characteristics when “sizing up” their students at the beginning of the year. Teachers report they feel compelled to get to know their students’ skills, weaknesses and personalities as quickly as possible so they can organize their classrooms and plan appropriate instruction. The pressure to learn students’ characteristics and to make instructional decisions quickly can create problems with the validity and reliability of perceptions.

Not all the information sources teachers use are equally reliable or valid. Teachers report that they use the physical appearance of their students, their academic ability, family background, academic performance, sociability, cooperativeness, motivation and even the performance of siblings when making instructional decisions at the beginning of the year.

First impressions

Studies have shown that teachers’ perceptions and expectations formed in the first few days of school remain quite stable throughout the year. These first impressions guide teachers’ academic and social interactions with students. These interactions, in turn, influence students’ motivation, self-perception, effort, cooperativeness and academic performance.

These researchers stress that educators should not underestimate the importance of this informal sizing-up process or ignore concerns about its validity and reliability.

Planning instruction

Instructional planning requires teachers to modify the curriculum to take into account students1 abilities, work habits, special learning needs and readiness. Testing courses train teachers to write various kinds of test items when, in fact, most teachers rely heavily on textbooks and commercial instructional packages.

Airasian and Jones suggest that it would be more relevant for teachers to learn to assess and make informed decisions about the objectives, learning activities, worksheets and tests provided with the textbooks and instructional packages that they are given to use.

Monitoring instruction

The dynamic, interactive nature of instruction means that teachers must observe students and collect evidence about their reactions to on-going lessons. To judge how a lesson is going, teachers report they rely on facial expressions, posture, participation, eye contact, deportment and students1 questions and answers. The role of questioning as an important information-gathering technique is particularly relevant to this informal, on-going form of classroom assessment.


Informal assessment used to plan and monitor instruction is often not included in teacher training. Airasian and Jones conclude, however, that this type of assessment is perhaps the most fundamental and influential of all assessments used by teachers. These researchers believe that it is these process-oriented, informal assessments that most directly affect the kind of instruction and learning that take place in classrooms. In addition, this kind of knowledge informally and continuously gained by teachers about their students, makes it difficult for them to be the objective judges of student achievement that more formal measurement demand.

This is especially true for elementary teachers who spend the entire day with the same students and come to know them intimately. Airasian and Jones suggest that educators need to look carefully at the informal, on-going assessment that most directly influences instruction and learning in our classrooms.

“The Teacher as Applied Measurer: Realities of Classroom Measurement and Assessment”, Applied Measurement in Education, Volume 6, Number 3, pp. 241-254.

Published in ERN March/April 1994, Volume 7, Number 2.

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