A Challenge: Hidden Assessments

Elementary school boys working on laptops in a classroom

My son missed a couple of days of school recently, and so my wife and I emailed his teachers (he’s in the ninth grade) to see what work he needed to make up. His English teacher wrote us back with a couple of assignments and asked if we thought he would be ready for the test that day. As I expect happens with a lot of parents of teenagers, we had no idea he had a test coming up.

Now picture this: it’s the same day, later that evening, and I’m in the kitchen working on dinner. My son comes in, I ask him about his day, and I ask him, “Did you have a test in English today?” His response: “I don’t know.”

I laughed, “What do you mean? How do you not know if you had a test?” And it suddenly occurred to me, isn’t that how testing is supposed to work after all? As it turned out, the teacher had assigned the students an essay and a worksheet to complete in class. This was, in point of fact, a formative evaluation of the work of my son and his classmates. Yes, it was a “test.” And yet, because it was integrated into the everyday exercises of the class, he didn’t see it as a test. To my son, this was simply another activity, in this case about his reading of Of Mice and Men.

Isn’t that how testing is supposed to work after all? Indeed.

Testing is a valuable resource in the educational evaluation landscape. Let’s put aside for now the hot-button issues of benchmarking schools and accountability. When a test is used to gauge student learning and help the teacher tailor instruction to the needs of her students, that’s the sine qua non of the tool.

The problem we have in schools today is that we’re stuck on terminology. To most parents, testing looks like this:








Or this:








We’re stuck on this idea that a “test” is some daunting, nausea-inducing challenge that interrupts learning, rather than contributing to it. And, I’ll grant you, in many schools across the country, that’s how testing works.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. First, let’s get past the word “test.” The more proper term is “assessment.” A test implies that we are simply putting a grade or score on a student’s work. An assessment is a tool that is used to gauge students’ strengths and weaknesses. And when used properly, assessments help teachers determine those areas that require additional explanation and those that students have mastered, so they can move on to the next topic. Assessments ultimately save time by helping teachers to narrow the focus of instruction to topics where students are struggling.

Second, it’s important for us to recognize that assessments do not need to be grandiose, punitive distractions from learning. Assessments can be small. They can be hidden even, in the way that my son’s English teacher simply included his “test” as part of the regular process of learning. Think about it: this teacher’s assessment included an essay as well as some open-ended and multiple-choice questions. This is not unlike the kind of work students engage in on those state-mandated, full-day events every spring. The substance of the assessment is quite the same. But in my son’s case, the teacher didn’t make a bid deal out of it. Oh, she wanted him to be prepared, for sure. But because it didn’t even really occur to my son that he was being evaluated, he proceeded through the assessment without pause and without anxiety.

And so my challenge to you – parents, educators, researchers, and policy-makers – is that we seek out ways to incorporate the process of assessing students into their regular coursework. Using such hidden assessments, especially in small, frequent doses, will allow teachers to make those necessary course corrections (no pun intended) that can help students excel while at the same time preventing much of the anxiety and dread that tends to crop up during the months of March, April and May. Here in our Research & Innovation Network at Pearson, we’re working to make that a reality. What part can you play in that transition? Read more in this report.


Future of assessments


If you are interested in exploring further to see what Pearson is doing regarding assessments, here are links to different webpages:

Full report about balanced assessments

Portal to access free assessment resources

Balanced assessments infographic

When is it best to assess infographic


This blog post was originally published on the Research & Innovation Network blog and was re-posted here with permission.


About the Author
Rob Kadel, Ph.D.

Rob Kadel, Ph.D.

Rob Kadel is a research scientist focusing on measuring the effects of eLearning tools, tasks, and practices on student outcomes. He focuses on the use of social media for teaching and learning, one-to-one computing initiatives in schools, and gamification of higher education learning experiences. Prior to joining the Center, Dr. Kadel was a manager on the Academic Training and Consulting team at Pearson eCollege. He worked as an independent research and evaluation consultant for educational technology programs for six years and has also held faculty positions at Penn State University and Johns Hopkins University. In addition to his Pearson duties, he continues to teach online for the Department of Sociology at the University of Colorado, Denver. He holds a doctorate in Sociology from Emory University.