Pre-Assessments: Valuable Tool or Wasteful Nonsense

Pre-Assessments: Valuable Tool or Wasteful Nonsense

Pre-Assessment. The mere mention of the topic sends shivers down the spine of staff and students alike. Students view them as a menial task that they must complete. They probably don’t know the material that they are being asked about and have little chance at success. Additionally, what is the point anyway? They don’t count for a grade, so there is no motivation to even attempt to produce a reasonable score. Finally, students often take multiple lengthy pre-assessments on the same day. Such an arrangement makes it difficult to see students putting in maximum effort, especially as the day draws closer to an end.

Staff often view pre-assessment in a similarly negative light. As part of the TBT process, teachers are required to give a pre- and post-test so that they can compare results. Specifically, schools are looking to investigate the performance of students in certain subgroups and attempt to show that the gap between a specific subgroup (Special Education students or Economically Disadvantaged in the case of GCHS) and their peers is smaller than it previously was. Teachers view the pre-assessment as a waste of time for several reasons. Often the pre-test results show such low scores that it is difficult to imagine what you could glean from that assessment. The low scores indicate that the students don’t have any prior knowledge regarding a specific topic that they will be teaching. Additionally, a low level of motivation from students calls into question the validity of the results. Finally, pre-assessments have become much more common with the implementation of SLO’s. Coupling the pre-assessment used for classroom decision-making with that for an SLO can save time. However, it can also be dangerous when performance on SLO’s helps determine a teacher’s overall performance rating. This becomes even more dangerous when performance on the pre-assessment compared to the post-assessment is tied to teacher pay.

What should Pre-Assessments Be?

This negative slant on pre-assessment has caused me to pause and think about the actual purpose of this type of test. The purpose of pre-assessments should be to:

+Determine what information (if any) students have already mastered.

+Determine which students (if any) have already mastered the bulk of the content.

+Help plan the next steps in the instructional process.

-Utilizing instructional strategies that match the needs of the students.

-Appropriately challenge students, including those that have demonstrated mastery and those that have not.

+Help us reflect on the effectiveness of our instructional practices.

With these goals in mind, the value of pre-assessments becomes more clear. However, the value of the information that is being produced comes into question, which reflects upon the pre-assessment itself as well as the continued use of the data as the unit progresses. The process, then, must include valuable and accurate data. Additionally, the data that is gleaned through the pre-assessment must be revisited by staff and students alike as the unit progresses.

How can we make them valuable?

In order to address some of the issues that have been identified by staff and students, we must ensure that our pre-assessments are many things all at once. Pre-assessments must be specific enough to accurately place students on a continuum of mastery. At the same time, they must be broad enough to determine whether students have a basic understanding of concepts in general, in addition to the previously discussed mastery of specific skills. Additionally, pre-assessments must be continuously referenced and brought back to the surface at various times in the unit that they were used to plan. Finally, pre-assessments offer a unique opportunity to allow our students to self-assess, reflect on their own learning and engage in the material in a different way than when the curriculum is simply rolled out to them, even by expert teachers. Specific strategies and rationale for each of these must-haves for pre-assessments follows.

Pre-Assessments must be specific and general at the same time. Pre-tests that ask specific questions regarding the general topic allow us to start to determine the degree to which a student has mastered a topic. If all of the questions are general, then we may have an understanding that students have mastered the topic of Imperialism, but not specifically the Imperialistic thinking in America. The converse is also true; If all of the questions are very specific, then we may not be able to determine what general understandings our students have regarding an overarching topic. Students, for example, may not be able to recite the exact reasons for the start of the French Revolution, but they may have an understanding of revolutions in general from their previous exposure to the topic.

In order to accommodate the need for both specific and general questions, while maintaining a reasonable number of questions, then pre-assessments must only cover a certain time period of material. For instance, a pre-test that is used to assess a semester is too large. First, the assessment is too large and doesn’t allow for specific conclusions to be drawn. Second, the exposure to new thoughts and material from, say, September to February may allow them to demonstrate mastery or provide evidence of understanding on material to be covered in March that they wouldn’t have known earlier in the year. However, a pre-assessment that assesses only two days of material is too small, lacking the ability to make an appropriate adjustment that is worth the time of the educator that it takes to organize the data and plan effectively after reviewing the data.

In addition to the length of time that the pre-assessment will test, the number of questions should also be taken into consideration. Written correctly, 5 general questions and 5 more specific questions can efficiently help determine the level of familiarity and mastery of a given topic. Often pre-assessments are given in a multiple choice format. While multiple choice questions are easy to create, they should not be the sole type of question relied upon for pre-assessments. Additional options are Choose All That Apply questions as well as Fill-In-The-Blank or Short Answer questions. A blend of question types helps serve the purpose of differentiating between familiarity and mastery, as well as help determine the level of mastery of each student and groups of students.

Finally, questions that are interesting, but not related to the content, may be included in the pre-assessment to help drive authentic participation in the process. Once students are aware that these assessments don’t actually count for any portion of their grade, motivation to complete the assessment to the best of their ability tends to plummet. Coupling the strategy of a reasonable length pre-assessment with including questions that might interest the students, but aren’t directly related to the content, can also help increase authenticity of the participation of the students. For example, asking which structure is the tallest between the Eiffel Tower, Statue of Liberty, Gateway Arch of St. Louis and Space Needle can generate interest in students. The answer to that question…is easy to find, but won’t appear in this document. Those that are reading this and will take the time to look up the answer serve as evidence in favor of that theory.

Pre-Assessments must be referenced throughout the unit. Another important aspect regarding pre-tests is utilization of the questions and information that is gleaned from those questions throughout the unit. Methods for bringing the pre-assessment questions back into play are endless. One possibility might include a “question of the day” that highlights one of the pre-assessment questions alongside the learning target for the day. Revisiting these questions as they are being discussed in class will help students see the connection between what was initially stated as important to know and when they learn the material. An additional idea that highlights the strategy of allowing students to self-assess while continuing to revisit the material is including a list of questions with several dates for students to rate their own understanding of each question or general idea as the unit progresses. An example is included below.

Student self-assessment allows the students to take ownership of their own learning. Additionally, this strategy allows students to recognize their own progress and helps them develop a growth mindset. The development of growth mindsets in our students has long-lasting effects that extend beyond the classroom. Carol Dweck, a leading researcher on the impact of developing a growth mindset advocates for student involvement in the investigation of the process that produces success. The strategy of utilizing student ratings of their own understanding certainly falls under the umbrella of helping students identify strategies that help them work toward mastery. While this may be perceived mastery only, this self-rating will be beneficial even after the post-assessment when students compare their perception of mastery with their actual results.


In the world of alphabet soup that we live in today it can sometimes be easy to focus on the requirements that are placed on educators. After all, the list is long and seems to be growing each and every day. However, a personal goal is to help facilitate the notion that each task that we complete as educators be purposeful, measured and valuable. Yes, we have to complete SLO’s. Let’s work, then, to make our SLO’s as valuable as they can be and provide an opportunity for students to take a quasi EOC, AP or ACT assessment. Yes, we have to utilize pre- and post-test data for our TBT process. Let’s work, then, to make our pre-assessments as valuable as possible in helping to plan units and guide instructional practices as well as provide an opportunity for students to engage more completely in the educational process and to reflect on their own learning.

Education has changed dramatically over the past decade, with major changes in evaluation, curriculum delivery, the curriculum itself, assessment and graduation requirements. Even the change in the State Teachers Retirement System and the new licensing requirements cannot be overlooked. While there are many changes, there are also many consistencies. The most notable of those consistencies is clearly the mission of education. We are tasked with producing citizens that are ready for a job or higher education when they leave the hallways of our high schools. While that process may look different than it did 15 years ago, we still have the same goal. Pre-assessment as one of the requirements for some of the processes that exist in education at this point is just one of the tools that we must learn to utilize instead of loath. The requirements of the job have changed and it is important that we view those changes as an opportunity to create meaningful and valuable resources that have the potential to stand the test of time even if the requirement to use them fades.