Rethinking Assessment

by Eric Hill, Professional Development Specialist

Today, more than ever, educators are administering continuous assessments to their learners. The trend is largely driven by the increased demand for data. However, it is time we pause and reflect on the intentionality and purpose that drives our assessment practices, and more importantly learning and teaching.

Before you read any further, take a moment to reflect on your current assessment practices:

  • Define what is meant by assessment.
  • What is your purpose for the assessment?
  • When and how do you assess learners?
  • How do your assessment practices inform your instructional practices?

When discussing the topic of assessment, it is important that we recognize the types of assessment and their distinct purpose. For most, the different types of assessments that come to mind are formative and summative assessments. Summative assessments are defined as a tool to measure the level of student, school or program success and formative assessments are used as ongoing checkpoints taking place throughout the learning and teaching process. However, the way in which we view assessment must go much deeper.

First of all, we need to recognize that almost any assessment tool can be used in a summative or formative manner. What distinguishes the two forms of assessment from one another is what we do with the information. For example, Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) often use common formative assessments throughout a unit to measure learner progress and predict future performance on future summative assessments. A major misconception with this practice is that this type of assessment is formative solely because of its implementation in the teaching and learning cycle and level at which the assessment informs the learner’s grade. However, it is important to realize that these assessments will actually produce no formative benefits if the educators who administer them simply report the results, offer basic feedback, and then continue on with instruction. 

Formative assessments only serve an informative purpose when they are delivered throughout the instructional cycle and result in timely and actionable feedback that both the educator and the learner can use to inform the next steps in the learning process. In this way, formative assessment must be an ongoing, dynamic process that serves as the purposeful dialogue between the educator and the learner.

To overcome some of the misconceptions addressed above, it may be beneficial to instead look at assessment from these three lenses: assessment OF learning, assessment FOR learning and assessment AS learning. By distinguishing each of the assessments we give our learners through this lens, educators may become more aware of the types of assessments they are administering and the alignment between the intended purpose vs. actual outcomes. 

table explaining difference between of for as assessment
Developed by the Assessment Training Institute (2008)

Conventional assessment models typically serve the purpose of assessment of learning, where educators use the assessment as a benchmark to assess what the student has learned, determine a level of competency, and assign a grade. This form of assessment is administered by the state, school or teacher, and often results in minimal actionable feedback for the learner outside of a grade or mark of proficiency. These assessments may serve as a formative tool for the teacher for future instruction or modifications to a lesson or unit for the subsequent year, but likely do not offer an immediate opportunity for learners to reflect, review, and grow. While necessary at times, this should not be the purpose of the majority of our assessments.

Assessment for learning is reflective of the strong implementation of formative and summative assessment practices. In this form of assessment, learners are active participants in the assessment process and engage in continuous dialogue with the educator about their progress. Learners may be advocates to demonstrate readiness, which is made possible by clear learning objectives, tied to standards, in student-friendly language, possibly in the form of a learner continuum or rubric. Because of the learner’s involvement in this process and descriptive feedback they receive, an increase in learner motivation is also likely, allowing the educator to serve more as a facilitator and learning coach, versus an instructor and classroom manager.

Through the use of strong assessment for learning practices, learners will become more active, reflective, and metacognitive in the assessment process and assessment will be continuous and ongoing, directed by the learner and communicated to the educator through conferring and conferencing practices. Over time, using assessment as learning will become an essential element of the classroom culture. This form of assessment supports assessment as an ongoing learning tool. Educators help learners to understand standards, learning objectives, and learning pathways at a deep level and learners are actively involved in the assessment and monitoring of their own learning. Additionally, learners use tools such as learner and graduate profiles, portfolios, and continuums to set goals and advocate for proficiency. Successfully implementing this form of assessment requires a commitment to teaching essential skills such as organization, collaboration, reflection, and communication equally as much as educators are committed to teaching the content standards. However, when this is done well, learners are set up for life-long learning and are empowered to make meaning of their learning for their own life.

Through the development of a strong culture for learning, shared commitment to success and assessment for learning practices, relationships between learners and educators will thrive in ways conventional assessment models often diminish.  Learners will find value in the process and recognize that learning is the currency that matters, not the grade because a grade is nothing but a snapshot of a moment in time, but learning is for a lifetime.

Take a moment to conduct an audit of your classroom, department, and/or school assessment practices using THIS TOOL, developed by the Assessment for Learning Project.

Works Cited:

Chapin, Gary. Five non-negotiables in assessment for learning. Education Week. 2019.

Chappuis, Stephen; Chappuis, Jan. Best Value in Formative Assessment. Educational Leadership. Vol 65, No. 4. 2008..

Lewis, Brandon. Teachers should design student assessments. But first they need to learn how. Education Week. 2019.

Stiggins, Rich. Assessment for learning: A key to motivation and achievement. EDge. Vol 2, No 2. 2006.