Productive Assessment Systems Are in Balance

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By Rick Stiggins

Assessment is the process of gathering evidence of student achievement to inform educational decisions. The list of truly important instructional decision makers who want and need to be informed by assessment results is long and the array of decisions they face is complex. Local school district assessment systems are in balance when they meet the information needs of all key users. Let’s consider three foundations of balanced assessment.

Foundation #1 is a clear and differentiated sense of purpose

Assessments serve formative purposes when they support student confidence and learning success; that is, when they become part of the cause of learning, not merely the measure of it. They serve summative purposes when they are used to certify student learning success. Both purposes are important, but they are different. Formative assessments want to point the learner toward greater success and confidence that success is within reach if they strive for it. Summative assessments bank on a sense of accountability to promote and verify learning success. Again, both are important and so deserve our careful attention.

Local district assessment systems are in balance when they serve both purposes effectively.  Each and every assessment event, whether intended for use day-to-day in the classroom, periodically across classrooms, or annually in the boardroom, must arise from a clear sense of purpose; that is, the assessor must understand in advance who will use the results to inform what educational decision(s).

Foundation #2 is assessment quality

Whether intended to serve important formative or summative purposes, an assessment can be productive only if it yields dependable evidence of student leaning. Users must develop or select high-quality assessments. This means they must bring to the table a sufficiently well-developed foundation of assessment literacy to ensure quality. More specifically, they must be prepared to select a proper assessment method given the learning target to be assessed, design an efficient sampling frame, develop high-quality exercises and scoring schemes, and minimize bias in their assessment. Those who are unable to effectively manage these keys to assessment quality place students directly in harm’s way due to the mis-measurement of their achievement and the inappropriate instructional decision making that will result. In other words, a poor quality formative assessment is likely to do far more harm than good to student learning success.

Foundation #3 is the student’s role in the assessment

Historically, we have seen assessment as something adults do to students. We teach, assess, and grade, and on the summative side of balance, that has been appropriate. However, recent breakthroughs on the formative side bring profound and immensely promising changes to the student’s role. We have learned that students can become critically important data-based decision makers in their own right. By bringing learners into the process of monitoring their own growth, we can create emotional dynamics that keep them believing in themselves and encourage them to take responsibility for their ultimate success. In this kind of “assessment FOR learning” environment, achievement skyrockets.