Understanding Assessment

Understanding Assessment

"Assessment" appears to be a buzzword within the tutoring industry. A quick look at many tutoring websites shows references to assessment. In particular, many companies advertise free assessments. But what are these assessments and how useful are they really? 

Assessment is a broadly used term in education but there are many different forms of assessment and each has it's own place and merits. 

Within the tutoring industry, assessment generally refers to a grade-based assessment. This means that they are designed to determine the overall  grade level that a student is performing at. This is not really very useful as students abilities may vary according to the skill and not the year level. Other assessments are more specific and can give information regarding specific skills. The result determines the starting point for a student in a company's pre-prepared curriculum, or for a tutor who is designing a personalised program. This means that a student will only be provided with material at the level they capable of working. Sounds good doesn't it? 

The main issue with this type of assessment is it doesn't provide any information about WHY a student might be underperforming. For some students this won't be an issue and they will definitely improve once given the opportunity to start at a level they are comfortable with. This allows the tutor to "fill in the blanks" and to re-teach previously misunderstood concepts. 

The end result for other students however, may be that they never really progress and teachers and tutors are constantly trying different approaches/apps/websites to see what will "work." 

The other type of assessment is termed "diagnostic." This means that the assessment determines WHY a student is underperforming for the purpose of recommending the best strategies for that student. Once a student is being taught by the most appropraite strategies for them, learning is enhanced.

Both assessments types can be quite useful when administered correctly to the right student. For example a student with a history of struggling with numeracy and literacy skills throughout the primary years won't really benefit from a grade-based assessment. It would be well known that the student performs at a lower grade level so the main question that should be asked is WHY? This student is better suited to a diagnostic assessment. Informal diagnostic assessments can be performed by trained teachers and are also frely available to tutors. More specialised diagnostic assessments are performed by specialists. 

A tutor's training in, and understanding of,  the use of any informal diagnostic assessment is paramount. A tutor must have an excellent abilty to administer the assessment and to interpet the findings. in order for the assessment to be of any value. 

Why should a  child have a learning (diagnostic) assessment?

Teachers and parents are concerned about a student's progress. Teachers have been unable to provide any specific answers as to why the student appears to be struggling and their efforts to assist have not been successful. The parents are also concerned about what they observe at home. A diagnostic assessment can therefore be recommended:

"1. To discover what their learning potential is. In other words, what might they be capable of achieving given their ability to absorb, process and recall information?

2. To reveal how they learn and process information – their “learning profile” – showing their particular strengths and weaknesses.

3. To find out if they have any specific difficulties with reading, writing, maths or attention (or, more rarely, to find out if they might be “gifted”).

4. To identify the specific learning strategies and types of support they are likely to benefit from – at home and at school.

5. To help them gain insight into their own learning ability. Children can start to notice differences between their own learning and that of other children as early as grades one or two. And this can affect their self-esteem and confidence. A simple understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses is often helpful.

6. So parents can make informed decisions about their education, such as school choice, extra-curricular programs or applying for extra time on exams.

When should a learning assessment be done?

7. One thing is clear: Earlier is better than later. A 2015 study found that children with learning difficulties risk falling into a long term “learning gap” that persists into adolescence and adulthood, with serious consequences for academic achievement and emotional development. And research has consistently shown that early intervention improves long-term learning outcomes.

8. What about other medical or developmental issues? If parents are concerned about significant delays in social, emotional or intellectual development (other than a learning difficulty) we suggest consulting a GP or paediatrician first." (Melbourne Child Psychology

Let's look at examples of when a diagnostic assessment is a better choice: 

Sarah is in Grade 5 and struggles with math. The tutor assesses her as performing at a grade 3 level. Sarah starts the tutoring program at Grade 3 and does a lot of activities and worksheets where she practices her math skills. Over time, Sarah moves from grade 3 to grade 4 and then to grade 5. Everyone is happy and the tutoring program is deemed to be successful. Sarah stops being tutored as she is now performing at grade level. In Grade 6, Sarah starts the year well but difficulties arise when new concepts are taught. She is unable to relate these concepts to anything she has learnt previously. It is noticed that she struggles with worded problems and so is given a lot of worded problems to practice. Improvement is slow and so she starts tutoring again. Sound familiar?

Consider this: Sarah is in Grade 5 and struggles with math. A review of her academic history reveals that Sarah has always had some problems with her numeracy skills. In addition, Sarah has never been a competent speller and has always been assessed as "at standard" for comprehension, despite thinkng that Sarah has always struggled to understand what she is reading. She doesn't like reading and avoids it. The school arranges for a formal diagnostic assessment which reveals that Sarah has an Auditory Processing Disorder. This means that Sarah's brain simply doesn't process auditory information in the same way as others. This has resulted in her not fully understanding verbal instructions. This accounts for the difficulties she is experiencing at school and specific strategies are recommened and adopted by her teacher. To further support her learning, Sarah has a private tutor who uses the specific teaching strategies within each session. Sarah progresses throughout the year and is equipped with some fantastic strategies that she can use for independent learning. Sarah finally feels that she is understood and has found new confidence in her abilities. Math concepts become clear and she is now much more capable of completing worded problems. With the support of her tutor, Sarah works on comprehension strategies and finally begins to enjoy reading. 

At times, simply speaking with parents can reveal the underlying issue. For example, the student loves everything related to sports but is not really interested in the academic side of work though they are completely capable of it. The student prefers to spend time outside and neglects their homework. The right tutor is able to provide assistance with study and organisational skills and generally ensure that the student has the correct understanding to be able to complete their homework independently and submit it on time. 

Some highly capable math students do very well in class but perform poorly on assessments. Their overall grade on their semester report is quite low. The tutoring centre assesses them and determines that they are two years behind. The student is then placed in a program at the lower level but thye become bored and don't really enjoy tutoring. But the reality is that the student simply has very poor study skills and assessment strategies. By working with a tutor who provides the student with the study skills and organisational advice and equipping them with excellent assessment strategies the student is finally in a position to correctly demonstrate their level of understanding and their grades suddenly jump to be at the correct year level. 

This can all be quite confusing for a parent. When a parent is concerned about their child's progress, they should firstly speak with the school to see if there are grounds for specialist diagnostic assessments. Many schools will have a specialist educator who they can speak with regarding their concerns. The school may also be able to help with organisational strategies etc but I have found that student's benefit more from the personalised assistance of a well informed tutor. 

If a tutor/company says that they will do an assessment parents should ask the following:

  • What qualifications do you have to administer the assessment and interpret your findings?
  • What are you assessing?
  • What type of assessment is it?
  • What is the purpose of the assessment?
  • How will my child benefit from the assessment?

Lastly, as a tutor there is no shame in referring a student to someone else for the assessment. This defines you as a professional who puts the children's needs first.