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Develop assessments that support student success

March 23, 2018

The outcome of an assessment is never entirely dependent on student competency. There are a bazillion factors that influence student performance on an exam, and truly very few of them give us information about how well the student knows the material. With regard to assessment, it is our responsibility as teachers to limit the influence of those extra variables--and to that end, I have a few ideas to share with you!

Melissa Mullins is a Spanish teacher in Georgia, and a few days ago she emailed me with a copy of an exam that she gave her students. She had just finished teaching Units 14-17 of the SOMOS 1 curriculum to her Spanish 2 students over a period of 25 days, and the students scored lower than she had expected on the exams. Knowing that the problem didn't likely lie squarely on her shoulders, she asked if I would be willing to give it a looksie. And so I did! And I am sharing my thoughts here with you.

Now first of all--HUGE props to Melissa. She recognized that the exam results did not align with her students' performance in class, and she went digging for answers. For me, grading 150 exams was often so much work that I didn't have the time or mental space when it was all said and done to troubleshoot. I did throw out more than one assessment in my day, but I can't say that I ever went back and re-worked them.

So, here is the original exam that Melissa created and sent to me. And to be 100% transparent with you--when I read her email, opened the attachment, and scrolled through to see that it was more than 2 pages long, I immediately closed it out. The sheer number of pages stressed me out! I left it in my inbox for a few hours before opening it again that evening. Determined to help a sista out, I pushed past my stress and started digging in. I am so glad that I did!

My initial thoughts:

  • Serious assessment writing achievement stars to Melissa. This assessment was NOT easy to put together!!
  • I'm so stressed! This thing never ends!
  • I can't believe kids can really do all of this after unit 17!
  • Everything is totally doable! Why am I so stressed? Seriously...why am I so stressed?

That last question was what I got stuck on, and it was the same reason that Melissa reached out to me. Students that have completed through Unit 17 of the SOMOS curriculum should be able to complete each of the tasks with relative ease. So why had Melissa's students achieved such low scores, and why was the exam so intimidating even to me?


Often, a short assessment will give you just as much information and just as accurate information as an extended assessment will. If students need to read something, could they read a short paragraph instead of a full-page text? If they need to write, can they develop their thoughts and give you enough evidence to analyze in 50 words instead of in 200? Can you ask 3 questions instead of 10? Whenever you design an assessment, ask yourself, "What is the SHORTEST task that I can create and still get the information that I need?" -- and then, go with that! In my Assessment for Acquisition workshop (which you can catch at OFLA in just two weeks!), I share a ton of quick assessments that give you a sufficient glimpse into students' progress on the path to proficiency. Most of the assessments that are included within units in the SOMOS curriculum are very short. For example, you'll find 1/3 page readings with just 4-5 questions (for reading assessments); listening assessments comparing 4-5 pairs of sentences, and focused free writes for writing.


Did you know that you do not have to administer all portions of an exam on the same day (with the obvious exception of scheduled testing blocks)? When you throw down a giant packet of paper on students' desks, they immediately feel anxious. When the subject is already a struggle for them or when tests are sources of anxiety (read: fear), imagining the prospect of a multi-page assessment is the stuff of nightmares. And once they finally work up the courage to open the exam, where to begin? Start at the beginning or flip through until they find something that seems easy? But what if in flipping through they find something difficult that causes even more anxiety?? Ay ay ay! Even your students that are great test takers are going to feel a nervous rush! I was a speedster, and so when I was told "You may begin!" with a thick exam in front of me, I was off to the races to see just how quickly I could finish--this is NOT how you want your students to approach their assessments!

A summative assessment--an assessment that goes in the gradebook; that 'counts'--is one that happens at the end of a learning period. In theory, the data from the assessment should be used to inform instruction moving forward. Also in theory, the summative assessment wasn't administered until formative assessments demonstrated that students had reached the desired goal. Give those two things, you probably already know how your students will perform on the exam and have planned your coming lessons accordingly. For that reason, I have NO problem with giving students a 'trickle' exam: administering one section of an exam each day for a series of days, and spending the rest of class time each day on the next unit of study.

Administering an exam 'trickle' style will do a few things:

  1. Students will feel WAY less anxious. They only have one section of the exam to worry about at a time. It is a manageable task, and they know exactly where to begin. Less anxious = better performance.
  2. Grading will be much more manageable for you. Instead of grading 150 10-page exams, each day you are looking at grading a single task for each of your students. Grading is never fun, but this makes it much easier to swallow.
  3. Performance will be more authentic. When you administer all portions of an exam on a single day, there are many factors that inflate or deflate the picture that you capture of students' proficiency: how much they crammed the night before, how late they went to bed that night, how many tests they have in other classes, what the jerk in the hall said to them right before they walked in the door, etc. For that reason, spreading the exam out over a series of days will make it more likely that you are seeing students' true proficiency (versus test-prepped, monitored proficiency) and that students will have at least several days in which they are physically, mentally, and emotionally able to perform their best.


Reading and listening are easier than speaking and writing. Input activates the language that is already in students' heads. When you design tests, put the reading and listening sections first, then move on to writing and speaking. It's like trying to jump start a dead engine! When we lived in AK and my car battery died, we had to let power run to the battery for awhile before we could ask it to 'produce' (run).


Visually, each page should be neat, orderly, and not too crowded. Students' eyes should be drawn to the start of the page and then down in order. The more crowded and jumbled the content on each page, the more crowded and jumbled students will feel in their heads.


If it is a reading or listening assessment, consider asking the questions in English and allow students to write their answers in English.

If it is a writing or speaking assessment, write the instructions in English.

You can read more about why in this post or this post or this post.

Taking all of that into consideration, click on the image below to access my adapted version of Melissa's exam (except for the 'short' part--it is LONG). I posted the exam for free on TpT, without an answer key and with a cryptic description, to try to limit the ability of overzealous students to track it down.

Consider to what degree your assessments allow students to effectively demonstrate what they know and are able to do in the target language

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