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The Potential and Downsides of Pre-Assessments

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

Why give students pre-assessments? ask Thomas Guskey (University of Kentucky) and Jay McTighe (author/consultant) in this Educational Leadership article. The most common reasons are:
- To see what students know and are able to do before embarking on a lesson, curriculum unit, or course;
- To get baseline data against which to measure students’ progress;
- To communicate course or unit expectations to students up front and allow them to self-assess against models of expert performance;
- To focus students on the learning targets and get them thinking about how they will improve as a result of the lesson, unit, or course;
- To get a sense of students’ preconceived notions, misunderstandings, misconceptions, and knowledge gaps;
- To identify students’ interests, likes and dislikes, talents, and preferred ways of learning (surveys with questions like these also tell students that their teacher cares about them as people).
Notwithstanding these potential benefits, say Guskey and McTighe, pre-assessments can have the following downsides:
• Beginning on a bad note – “If pre-assessments simply demonstrate to students how little they know, this exercise may negatively affect their disposition toward the upcoming event,” say the authors. Teachers’ messaging needs to emphasize that a pre-assessment won’t count against students and the purpose is to help make lessons more effective and fun, highlight what’s going to be learned, and allow students to set goals.
• Wasting instructional time – The results of pre-assessments are often not news to teachers, especially if a unit has been carefully planned to anticipate errors and misconceptions. To avoid giving pre-assessments that add little value, teachers should use them only when necessary, keep them short, using multiple-choice questions where possible, and limit questions to areas where the teacher genuinely doesn’t know how students will perform.
• Creating management challenges – A thorough unit pre-assessment might well reveal four levels of student preparation in a single classroom: students who know the intended outcomes up front; students who have partial knowledge; students who have little or no knowledge; and students who have significant misconceptions. Trying to differentiate for all these students is a classroom management nightmare for even the most creative teacher. Guskey and McTighe suggest a compromise, with some highly engaging whole-class presentations and then significant decentralization and choice with frequent checks for understanding.
• Consuming precious time looking at data – Written pre-assessment responses can take a lot of teacher time to score and analyze, slowing down the launch of instruction (especially for secondary teachers with multiple classes). When possible, teachers should gather pre-assessment data with individual student dry-erase boards, clickers, or other methods that allow for rapid student input and teacher analysis and decision-making. KWL charts can also be helpful (getting students to brainstorm at the outset what they know and want to know, and then at the end of the unit what they learned).
Guskey and McTighe conclude with three guidelines to ensure that pre-assessments are practical, provide useful data, and enhance student learning:
• Teachers should be clear about the purpose, both for themselves and their students. What new and helpful data will be gathered? Do students know why they are doing the pre-assessment?
• Decide how the information will be used. “Pre-assessment without associated action is like eating without digestion,” say Guskey and McTighe. Possible follow-ups include reviewing essential knowledge and skills with the whole class, addressing misconceptions, providing targeted instruction, linking content to students’ interests, and differentiating for individuals or groups.
• Use pre-assessments judiciously and efficiently. They’re not necessary for every new unit, say the authors – only when they can really add value and only if they’re short and can produce data that can be assessed quickly. Guskey and McTighe recommend against giving pre-assessments for individual lessons.
“Pre-Assessment: Promises and Cautions” by Thomas Guskey and Jay McTighe in Educational Leadership, April 2016 (Vol. 73, #7, p. 38-43), available for purchase at; the authors can be reached at and

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