Assessments: Task Neutral/Task Agnostic | Steve Barkley

Assessments: Task Neutral/Task Agnostic

I was introduced to these two terms in a Tom Schimmer podcast interview with Lee Ann Jung. The interview focused on assessments in Universal Design for Learning (UDL).

UDL guides the design of learning experiences to proactively meet the needs of all learners. When you use UDL, you assume that barriers to learning are in the design of the environment, not in the student.” More information on UDL here.

Early in the podcast, Jung provides a great image for UDL. She describes how curb cuts or sidewalk ramps, which were built for individuals in wheelchairs to have access, are a great service to parents pushing a stroller or delivery persons with carts. Similarly, strategies, technologies, or adaptations originally selected for a student with an IEP defined learning disability, can often advance learning for other students. That certainly was my experience very early in my teaching career. Anytime a special education teacher shared a strategy for me to use with one of my students that she supported, I ended up providing it to other students who found it assisted their learning.

I recall a coaching observation in a middle school social studies class. My attention was first drawn to how the students were listening intently, leaned in, as the teacher presented a historical event with a storytelling delivery. Then I noticed students pulling back to copy the notes from the teacher’s PowerPoint into their notes. I sensed some students were almost pained by a desire to listen and enjoy, perhaps envisioning the story, but worried the slide would change before they could record the information. As I pondered how the teacher might adjust the instructional plan to maximize his delivery strength and student engagement, I noticed one student with an iPad on his desk. Getting a closer look, I realized he had a copy of the teacher’s slides. In our post-conference, I learned it was an adaptation generated from the student’s IEP. We discussed the probability of many students benefitting from this learning opportunity.

Show what they know.

In the podcast, Jung describes the inequities that can emerge in how one is assessed with the example of someone being asked to present to a large audience. For some of us, not a problem. For others, the lack of confidence or fear of the situation could dramatically decrease the quality of our performance. As I listened, I recalled the many teachers who have told me their principal has never seen their best teaching because the teacher’s instruction is impacted by the consciousness of being observed.

Jung and Schimmer describe the need to design assessments where the type of assessment does not interfere with a student’s quality of performance, task neutral, or task agnostic. They provide some questions that can assist in designing or evaluating assessment tasks. (These questions could initiate a valuable PLC exploration)

  • What are things that affect your own performance of a skill you’ve learned?
  • What have you observed about how different students are impacted by how assessment occurs?
  • What outside factors can get in the way of showing learning and understanding?
  • What are different ways that students can show their learning?

“My original goals in giving students a choice in how I would evaluate them were to provide ownership in the process, to put the burden of responsibility of learning on the students’ shoulders, and to help each student be as successful as possible. I also wanted them to discover on their own which modes worked best for them. Most found it refreshing to know that if they made poor choices, they could change them in the next grading period.”
(John Dorroh)

John Dorroh, writing in Edutopia, describes how he built student voice and choice into his assessment practices. He shares that he was influenced by recognizing how the different strengths and talents of students appeared in oral reports, video clips, written essays, and small group problem-solving.

Dorroh gave students this list of assessment options: journaling, lab work, oral reports, a writing cluster (drama, fiction, poetry, and essays), small group work, artwork, and written tests.

Each student would choose at least three modes from the list above for the nine-week grading period. If they didn’t want to take tests, they wouldn’t have to—they would use other modes to demonstrate the learning that I would previously have tested. Once they made their choices, they had to stick with them for the whole grading period. It’s important to note that students were evaluated only with the modes that they selected.

Questions and concerns from Dorroh’s principal led to all students taking a test at the end of each marking period. After the first year, those results provided the assurance needed, and the test was dropped.

Value of student choice in assessments

An unexpected side effect was that I was never bored—the students constantly surprised me with their creations and apparent understanding of content. Switching from orthodox methods of evaluating student progress—written tests, canned lab activities, and the occasional report—to a choice system created an environment that fostered authentic understanding of scientific principles and concepts.(John Dorroh)

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