Marks of brain-based assessment: A practical checklist
National Association of Secondary School Principals. NASSP Bulletin; Reston; May 1998; Ellen Weber;





Start Page: 




Subject Terms: 

Educational evaluation

Recognizing that students learn in various ways and at different rates makes alternative assessment tools imperative. The effective assessment tools for brain-based learning are discussed.

Full Text:

Copyright National Association of Secondary School Principals May 1998

Recognizing that students learn in various ways and at different rates makes alternative assessment tools imperative. But what are distinguishing marks of effective assessment tools for brain-based learning? What does intelligence-fair assessment look like? And how can we adjust our classroom practices to accommodate multiple ways of knowing, while honoring the demands of curriculum mandates, state requirements, and college entrance expectations?

Teachers in the last decade have struggled with the dilemma of how to accurately assess teens and pre-teens who learn in various ways and at different rates. The problem is exacerbated since alternative assessment tools are often less accessible than standardized or conventional tests. So how can teachers begin to rethink their assessment strategies? Where do they begin? Perhaps by simply highlighting a few distinguishing marks of effective assessment tools for brain-based learning, teachers will also begin to discover and adopt quality alternatives.

Before implementing new assessment approaches, busy teachers require time and support to explore a few practical questions. They need ongoing forums to discuss questions such as, What does brain-based assessment look like? And how can current classroom practices adjust to accommodate multiple ways of knowing, while honoring the demands of curriculum mandates, state requirements, and college entrance expectations? Sadly, in my work with middle level and high school teachers, it becomes apparent how few have encountered even minimal support to either raise critical questions together or to seek quality responses.

In my 1998 book titled Student Assessment That Works. A Practical Approach, I identified distinguishing marks of high school brain-based assessment. These include:

*Collaboration of students, teachers, and parents

*Authentic assessment practices for even more traditional settings

*Reminders about what is valued within a variety of cultures

*Conflict resolution opportunities for small-group assessment

*Rubrics that define expectations and provide guidelines.

While the book provides more hands-on practical activities for applying each of the distinguishing marks listed above, this article simply highlights key approaches for use in even the most traditional classes.

The purpose of suggesting alternative approaches is to bridge some major gaps between brain-based assessment and traditional high school testing. The last thing teachers want is more Band-aid solutions for broken systems. But as part of the solution-part of the change in attitude required-teachers might consider and reshape these marks to suit their particular assessment needs. Changed attitudes usually precede reformed practices.

According to Caine and Caine (1997), however, too often teachers try to reduce current innovative teaching strategies into traditional or outmoded mental models. But, as Caine and Caine infer, old wineskins should not be used to contain new wine:

Based on our studies, we believe that one reason why education continues to go through so many phases with "strategies that work," only to ultimately end up with business as usual, is that mental models of teaching and learning are not changing. Changing on the surface means acquiring new vocabulary and new formal explanations without challenging the basic beliefs that drive our moment-to-moment actions. We end up like the principal who was overheard excitedly telling a friend, "Oh, we did brain-based learning last year; this year we are doing constructivism" (p. 22).

The attitude changes cannot originate from top-down structures, but will arise out of meaningful encounters among teachers and others who are involved.

Collaboration of Students, Teachers, and Parents

Teachers who collaborate can share concerns about new practices and identify valued traditional measures that still work well. They can build ongoing data banks of ideas for communal criteria and strategies. One school, for instance, gathered a wealth of ideas over a few years, before translating these brainstorming sessions into practical interdisciplinary project ideas for their students.

Similarly, partnerships with students and parents ensure that quality ideas and materials will arise for relating students' knowledge to real life. Parents and students can alert teachers to specific skills and interests within their group that could be useful in reform efforts. Partnerships, for instance, ensure that grading practices are fair, and that they accommodate skills and knowledge valued within the larger community. So what hampers quality reform? What prevents assessment from coming into step with current brain discoveries?

Obstacles to collaboration include the rigid hierarchies that exist within some schools; refusal to take risks for improved results; and complacency with existing methods with little regard for current neuroscience research. To overcome obstacles to growth in our high schools teachers are beginning to seek solutions beyond any one culture.

What Is Valued in a Variety of Cultures

Inuit teachers in the Arctic taught me many new ways of solving old problems. For example, the Inuit enjoy using their hands to rebuild their historic survival practices such as scenes from forefathers, or create art pieces to express the emotions of their predecessors. To memorize lists about historic events, however, is unfamiliar and unnatural to their preferred ways of knowing. So Inuit often shared their frustrations over professors from predominantly White communities who dictated rigid ways of solving problems with little regard for Inuit-valued abilities or interests.

Teachers who involve other cultures in their classrooms can avoid the problem of narrow expectations. Parents and students in any class, when given the opportunity, will bring the best of their past and their expectations into the classroom. If we are to learn about the knowledge and skills valued in different cultures, we should listen carefully to each participant.

After interacting with many cultures, Howard Gardner identified many valid ways of solving similar problems. We are particularly grateful for experts like Gardner from the cognitive sciences, who laid groundwork for the ideas presented here.

Gardner and his research team at Harvard University have led the way toward improved testing that relates abstract theories and facts to solve real-world problems. We also recognize the many excellent performanceoutcome based measures created by teachers, parents, and student groups across many cultures, who demonstrate to us daily how to solve real-life problems through engaging students, unique abilities and interests.


Enlarge 200%


Enlarge 400%


Authentic Assessment for Traditional Settings

Authentic assessment simply refers to facts related to real life. To make connections, students may be required to complete projects rather than take short-answer paper-and-pencil tests. Ambiguity may be tolerated where rigid answers were once required. Learning at the middle or high school level may be expanded to include activities suitable for business requirements, community expectations, or higher educational demands. The process may require collaboration and contributions beyond any one classroom or school. In some schools, this process consists of portfolios, where students' work is collected and assessed over time. In other schools, portfolios simply augment traditional marks and assignments.

It is important to note that authentic assessment, or brain-based assessment, is not about "out with the old and in with the new." As we introduce tools that engage multiple intelligences, we will be able to accommodate expanded methods of solving common problems. It should also be noted, however, that schools which excel in authentic assessment practices are quickly becoming schools that qualify their students to excel in real-life communities long after assignments are completed.

Since brain-based assessment includes collaboration, attention may be required to solving conflicts that will inevitably arise.

Conflict Resolution Opportunities for Small-Group Assessment

While it is no surprise that conflicts often arise within small learning groups, the key question remains, What can we do when our class is well advanced on a major project, and suddenly one or two groups fall into critical conflicts? How can we resolve disagreements or problems that create anxiety and stress and threaten to destroy a learning group? Some teachers recommend removing any unhappy participants, but others have discovered a more effective approach, conflict resolution.

Simply splitting up groups will rarely reduce conflict situations. In fact, research shows that cohesiveness occurs only to the extent that peoples' needs are satisfied within groups. But whenever the dynamics of interpersonal relationships, diverse learning styles, or power imbalances obstruct a group's flow of communication, conflict resolution strategies can help students resolve and diffuse conflict situations.

Students in conflict may require a teacher's assistance, a reassurance that they can interact positively with others.* But if outsiders step in and remove students, the group learns only that conflict should be avoided, not solved. Several successful strategies used in classes I have observed may help your students to solve their unique conflicts. These include:

*Listen carefully to every member.

*Define each person's responsibilities.

*Value each person's gifts and contributions.

*Model excellence as an example.

*Promote humor among the members.

Rubrics That Define Expectations and Provide Guidelines

Students benefit from clearly stated criteria, at the beginning of any assignment, to help guide them through planning and execution of their ideas. Otherwise, they experience confusion about what exactly is required. Without clear expectations, they feel frustrated in their attempts to guess what their teachers what them to do.

One way to facilitate equal expectations about how students write well, think well, and apply skills well is to create an assessment rubric, as illustrated in the sample below. Note that rubrics should be specific and every component being measured should be itemized clearly.

Possible Areas of Strength:

*Identifies relevant and meaningful problem

*Creates effective responses or possibilities

*Applies specific ideas from the text or research to solve the problem

*Contributes data from current interview with one or more people

*Displays adaptations for accommodating one's individual abilities

*Suggests excellent recommendations for future consideration of the problem

*Illustrates communication skills in presenting several perspectives of the problem.


*Outstanding problem or question raised

*Accurate responses from course content,reserch and interviews.

*Outstanding grammar usage and writing ability

*Highly creative organization and presentation of ideas

*Outstanding strengths in multi-model applications

*Demonstrates one's ability to use individual strengths to solve real problems


*Significant strength in above areas

*Very good application of reserch to solve problem

*Very well-designed organization and presentation of ideas

*Very good references to class discussions, texts, and practicum experience

*Significant references to various perspectives from reserch and interviews


*Many strengths listed above

*Good writing style and grammar usage

*Good organization and clear problem posed

*Good contributions from reserch and interviews

*Good organization and presentation of ideas to support conclusions


*Adequate writing style and grammar usage

*Consistant support of ideas

*Ideas show potential for further development

*Adequate suggestions for solving problem


*Not adequate in above categories When parents, students and teachers agree on the rubric for major assignments, learners understand what is expected and so they have a much better chance at reaching higher goals. Rubrics are simply grading criteria that apply especially to the standards by which students will be marked. But carefully constructed, they can also serve as a motivator for students to reach higher goals. In a science class, for instance, rubrics might include:

*Demonstrates knowledge of abstract concepts

*Applies knowledge to new situation

*Uses appropriate lab equipment for solving problems

*Analyses statistical data

*Measures data accurately

*Represents research findings using appropriate medium

*Works well with others

*Submits lab reports on tim

*Predicts future reserch required concerning each topic studied

*Restores science work areas to orginal order.

Stiggings (1994) suggests that teachers also use specific checklists or rubrics for choosing efective assessment tasks.

Checklist for Implementing Brain-Based Tasks

The brief checklist below will enable teachers to survey specific approaches that support and accommodate brain-based learning:

The checklist provided here not only enables teachers to determine existing approaches that support brain-based learning, but also to implement brain-based practices that will help to narrow the gaps between neuroscience contributions and traditional testing approaches.


Enlarge 200%


Enlarge 400%


A Final Word

We cannot afford to make more demands on already taxed teachers, while providing minimal support. But neither can we afford to ignore creative approaches that enable accurate assessment of students or to disregard their various ways of expressing knowledge and engaging their unique skills. So where do we go from here? How can we honor quality existing programs and still implement current brain-based approaches?

Since alternative assessment tools may be less available than standardized or conventional tests, more effort is required to make current resources available to busy teachers. For instance, more practical approaches might be made available, as well as opportunities to negotiate improved assessment tools. This transition period will either provide fertile opportunities for advancement or it will stifle seedling innovations. Highlighting the marks of effective brain-based assessment may create one fresh segue into current alternatives, with minimal disruption to existing classrooms.

Only when we explore practical questions with teachers and consider their wisdom concerning brain-based resources can we accommodate multiple ways of knowing, while honoring the demands of curriculum mandates, state requirements, and college entrance expectations. The marks of brain-based assessment explored here are reflections of excellent practices many schools have adopted. These transitional years when new knowledge about the brain is helping us to make better choices about learning require input from many sources.

As graduation requirements, which once included a certain number of courses passed, are being replaced by a student's ability to demonstrate proficiency in 20 or so outcomes in areas such as communications, mathematics, ethics, personal health, and fitness, related assessment tools are required. These measures should enhance authentic learning and embrace real-life issues. I hope these distinguishing marks will add to the ongoing process of middle level and high school progress toward discovering and adopting quality brain-based assessment. -B