Assessment and COVID-19: The hashmarks haven’t moved

When the San Francisco 49ers won their first two Super Bowls in the 1980’s, their placekicker, Ray Wersching, had a unique routine for lining up to kick field goals and extra points: he would look down as soon as he trotted onto the field, never looking at the goal posts until after the kick.¹

It sounds bizarre but it worked, partly because Ray had a trustworthy pair of guides: the hashmarks on the field stretching from goal line to goal line, set apart at precisely the width between the goalposts in each end zone. By knowing the distance he was from the goal posts and the holder’s position between the hashmarks, Ray knew the angle and power needed for a successful kick. The knowledge helped him succeed as a pro: he played 15 seasons in the NFL, won two Super Bowl rings, and is one of only two players to have kicked four field goals in a single Super Bowl.¹

What does this have to do with assessment? It has much to do with it, in fact; despite the panic that ensued, for example, among faculty regarding course assessment when universities made the sudden decision in the spring to move courses online effective immediately due to COVID-related restrictions, the principles of assessment have not changed. Assessment of learners in any subject, when done professionally, is based on a fixed set of hashmarks, and the hashmarks don’t move regardless of whether assessment takes place online, in a physical classroom, or by some other means such as mail.

One of these hashmarks is the purposes of assessment: universities still use proficiency-test scores and other information to decide on each applicant’s admissibility for enrolment in their institution. Once students are enrolled multi-level language programs, assessment for placement in the correct level is often needed. Then, once a course or a new school year begins, teachers administer essays or refresher tests as a means of diagnosis to evaluate whether learners need review for some aspects of their previous course or extra assistance to address specific skill or knowledge weaknesses. During the course, progress is assessed via worksheets, quizzes, homework checks, and unit or midterm tests. Finally, achievement of course aims is evaluated through final tests, a term papers a presentation, or some other means.

The other key hashmark is the set of evaluative criteria by which we evaluate the quality of each of our assessment tools, whether that tool be a test, essay, portfolio, or interview, to list a few. Validity is one of the most familiar: does a test or presentation, for example, by the scoring method we use, actually assess what we intend it to assess? Are we grading our students’ final History paper based on their knowledge of the subject or the quality of their sentence structure and punctuation? Reliability is another: am I using my grading rubric in a consistent manner as I assign a score to each final essay in my English Composition class? Does my vocabulary test consistently measure vocabulary knowledge or use, and no other skill? How about authenticity? Does the final presentation I require in my Business English course actually assess the skills my students need to communicate successfully in the workplace? Do the tasks my students complete and include in their Advanced Academic English portfolios require them to apply the knowledge and skills they will require in their future university courses?

It is true that the means by which we assess students online and face-to-face do vary, and thankfully, much discussion is going on in that regard. But just as there is more than one way to prepare for, and execute, a successful field goal, and just as different successful golfers use different-shaped putters and have their own unique swings, the intended outcomes don’t change. The placekicker must always kick the ball within the goalposts to help his team, and the golfer with the lowest score is always the tournament winner. Whatever means of assessment we use with our students, the purposes of assessment, and the criteria by which we evaluate assessment, are hashmarks that don’t move.


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