The importance of assessment in education appears to be at an all-time high. In many schools, physical education teachers and programs are being tasked with documenting evidence of student learning and progress. In addition to assessing student learning in their specific content area, physical education teachers are often being asked to address literacy goals and to demonstrate their effectiveness through quality assessment measures (Mercier, Whitley, & Manson, 2014). To increase the apparent value of PE and justify its importance as a part of students’ well-rounded education, physical educators need to examine the means by which they define, measure and report student achievement in the physical education setting, and commit to developing and implementing quality assessment (Sundaresan, Dashoush, & Shangraw, 2017).
Though assessment in physical education is not new, a national focus on teacher evaluation systems including the use of student achievement scores is indeed new. Added attention has been given to the implementation of Common Core Learning Standards in all subject areas, including physical education. Physical educators are now being charged with implementing literacy concepts throughout their curriculum. Although many effective physical educators have incorporated literacy concepts into their curriculum for decades, recent reform efforts have placed the added expectation of documenting student learning in physical education (Lundvall, 2015).
While many teachers continue to ignore the practice of assessing student achievement in physical education, the trend of an increased focus on assessment has failed to go away. Recent administrative pressure to include student assessment data in teacher evaluation systems is yet another indicator assessments of student outcomes are here to stay for all teachers. Though there is a strong tradition of assessing teacher practice in physical education, standardized measures of student achievement in physical education are relatively new (Mercier & Doolittle, 2013). Physical education teachers often cite the lack of time to administer assessments, the inability to maintain a fun environment, and the lack of agreement between physical education goals and established assessments as reasons for not assessing students in physical education (Baghurst, 2014).
However, if physical education is to be viewed as an integral part of the curriculum, assessment is necessary to help ensure a quality physical education program for students, to provide feedback to teachers concerning their performance and the effect of their programs, to provide program justification, and to contribute to the accountability of the PE profession (Constantinou, 2017).
Today’s physical education assessments vary greatly. Some educators focus on learning, others on skill development, and others on enjoyment or effort. Many combine more than one of these components to develop a more uniform and standardized assessment. Physical fitness tests are extremely popular worldwide as a standardized measure and are often a requirement of a state or national curriculum (Fisette & Franck, 2012).
Most physical education experts caution against training students to perform well on fitness tests. Instead, there is consensus in the profession that physical education should promote enjoyable physical activity, help develop motor skills, and provide opportunities to engage in a wide range of physical activities, both now and in the future. If fitness scores were to be used for teacher evaluation, decision makers should be prepared to see physical education move away from lifelong physical activities toward mere physical training (Mercier & Doolittle, 2013).
In addition, although training students to do well on fitness tests may improve fitness test scores, it may also contribute to students developing negative feelings about participating in physical activity. Fitness testing has previously been shown to decrease positive attitudes toward physical education, and fitness testing is the most common negative memory adults have of physical education. With this in mind, it is important for physical educators to be aware of the long-term effect fitness testing may have on their students (Georgakis, Wilson, & Evans, 2015).
Fitness testing should be part of a quality physical education program including instruction on fitness education. A concern with using fitness tests to evaluate student achievement is they may not serve as an accurate assessment tool because students’ scores could easily be affected by factors such as genetics, effort, motivation, and the testing environment (Mercier & Doolittle, 2013). A disconnect currently exists between fitness testing and fitness education. Fitness testing is too often an isolated event, the purpose of which is unclear to students. Often fitness testing merely provides students with a score and does not require students to demonstrate knowledge of what the score measured. Quality physical education programs should give students the opportunity to learn about the aspects of health-related fitness through fitness testing, data analysis, and exercise planning (Georgakis, Wilson, & Evans, 2015).
Within education, determining whether a student is progressing appropriately occurs through assessment. However, opinions regarding how physical education students should be assessed vary greatly. As a consequence, some physical education professionals encourage skills-driven measures of competency, and others believe attributes such as attitude, effort, and participation are equally or even more important (Baghurst, 2014).
Physical educators who focus on grading effort may do so to recognize the student who tries hard but struggles to master skills. For example, elementary students are tested on their skills in executing the forearm pass in volleyball. One student has exhibited enormous effort trying to master the skill, even spending time after school, but is simply unable to improve on his or her original performance. When assigning a grade, the teacher recognizes that although the results were subpar, the effort put forth was excellent, and a higher grade is awarded than deserved by the skills demonstrated (Fox, 2012).
Another issue regarding grading on effort is how subjective it is, being based on feelings rather than an objective, standardized measure. For example, because effort is controllable, a teacher may feel anger at a student for not putting forth effort. However, the teacher also may feel pity if the student makes an effort but fails. As a consequence, grades are awarded based on feelings rather than identifying evidence of effort and therefore result in a subjective grade (Baghurst, 2014).
However, PE teachers should not ignore effort and participation completely. Although parents want to know where their child stands with respect to their skill level, they also are likely to desire an indication of how he or she behaves during class and whether the child demonstrates effort. Thus, instead of being included in a formal grade indicating proficiency, effort and participation should be minimally weighted or included as a separate grade or level (Constantinou, 2017).
In a recent survey of 617 schools, administrative duties such as dressing out, participation, and effort accounted for over 50% of the achievable grade. This is in direct contrast to state and professional recommendations for standards-based assessments (Young, 2011). Assessment methods including dressing out, attendance, and participation are too common. In addition, although skill proficiency is sometimes used as an assessment, grading is based on improvement as opposed to competency. Thus, a student who improves more than another may receive a superior grade. This may be unfair to the student who has mastered the skill already and has little upon which to improve (Baghurst, 2014). A grade informs administrators whether a student has been successful and allows the teacher to hold students accountable. Unsurprisingly, physical education has a poor reputation academically, given how students’ grades are heavily determined by the clothing they wear or their effort and participation (Young, 2011).
Assessments found to be aligned with established learning standards while demonstrating student achievement have been, and continue to be developed by physical education scholars at the state and national levels (Lundvall, 2015). When refining and mastering a skill, students benefit most from meaningful and concrete feedback. Due to logistical issues of class size, a student may receive little or no feedback from the teacher when needed. With this challenge in mind, peer assessment provides an excellent opportunity for immediate and substantive feedback to individuals (Gibbons & Kankkonen, 2011).
An important piece of a quality physical education program is to teach students the value and importance of demonstrating personal and social responsibility. Assessing these areas in the cognitive domain may help to promote appropriate participation during physical activity both within and outside of physical education. Incorporating the use of writing skills to assess cognitive knowledge in the area of personal and social responsibility offers the teacher a practical alternative to assessment based solely on teacher observation (Constantinou, 2017).
In conclusion, the writer found that the use of authentic assessments is of paramount importance if physical educators are to be respected when compared to other subjects. Far too often, PE teachers have placed a great deal of importance on how students dressed, behaved or displayed effort in class, while ignoring more skills based assessments used by classroom teachers. Though effort and behavior cannot be completely overlooked, the essence of any authentic assessment should be to help students achieve physical literacy through the acquisition of important skills necessary for their physical development. Alternate assessments such as peer assessments should be attempted in an effort to involve students in the process, helping them understand what they are learning and why it is so crucial to their development.
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