Transforming Instruction

by Anne Davies

Recently Melissa was on our members’ site and asked me to respond to the following question, “Can you explain the best method of preparing a math diagnostic assessment?”

When one considers the best method of preparing a math diagnostic assessment, it is important to ask a few questions:

  1. What is thepurpose?
  2. Who is theaudience?
  3. What kind ofevidence (e.g., data or information) is needed?
  4. How can you ensure forreliability and validity?
  5. How can thefindings be reported?

From a classroom assessment perspective, we think about diagnostic assessment as being about the gathering of “baseline data” through engaging learners in the tasks they are going to be learning more about. The purpose of diagnostic assessment from the classroom perspective is to understand what students know and what they need to know so instructional plans can be made with specific student needs in mind. Two examples:

Task: Students engage in representing their learning in relation to specific learning expectations/intentions. These tasks might be done by individuals, by small groups, or the entire class of students. There are many possibilities for performance tasks  based on grade level curriculum. Tasks could be anything from building patterns using manipulatives, problem solving and representing mathematical thinking in a variety of ways (words, symbols, graphs, equations and so on), or any other tasks that involve the application of mathematical concepts. Powerful performance tasks result in not only a product but also an opportunity to observe students and ask them to articulate their understandings. This collection of evidence from multiple sources collected over time (baseline tasks repeated more than once) provides for reliability and validity.

Test: Other times teachers take an end of unit test or quiz and ask students to do as much as they can and note which questions are easy, which are not too bad, and which are really difficult. It is helpful to ask students to use a common set of visual symbols (e.g., target) or colours (e.g., easy is green, moderate is yellow, difficult is red) to code the test items. Teachers explain to students that they don’t expect them to know everything because this is an END of learning test. Students are being asked to do the test so teachers will know more about what needs to be taught.

Other times the purpose of the diagnostic assessment is to identify trends and patterns across a large group of students so programs can be designed or to identify learning difficulties. These standardized diagnostic tests and tasks have their own quality standards. If these are the kind of diagnostic assessments you are interested in, you might want to read a column by Jim Popham titled, Diagnosing the Diagnostic Test.

Whatever you decide to do, think carefully about your purpose and ask yourself, “Do my planned next steps in terms of the diagnostic assessment support student learning?” If you can respond with a “Yes!” then proceed. If not, revise your plans. After all, diagnostic assessments are about supporting student learning first. Fulfilling the information needs of adults is a distant second purpose.

As teachers plan their classroom assessment in support of student learning, they find it helpful to build an assessment plan. You might want to use the end-of-chapter activities in Making Classroom Assessment Work to build your own assessment plan. This third edition will help you figure out which tasks could be a source of important baseline data for you and your students. I recommend you pay particular attention to the end-of-chapter activities for Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 9.

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