Developing one’s assessment literacy—that is, understanding the principles and processes of sound assessment practices—is the most efficient and effective professional investment any educator can make. To teach without assessment is to never quite know whether the intended learning goals are being met, where learners might have some misunderstandings, and what the array of next steps are in order to continue to advance their achievement. Teaching without assessment is not really teaching; it’s delivering information.
Assessment Is the Engine
Assessment sits at the center and is the engine behind of so many of the systems, structures, routines, and goals of the education system. While some success is most certainly possible, few things can maximize their impact without those responsible for implementation being assessment literate.
The ability to serve all learners is compromised when assessment fundamentals are limited, because teachers (and teams) will, at some point, be either misinformed or have a deficit of information that inhibits any further progress:
PLC: Collaborative teams within a PLC will flounder, since the first two questions—what do we want students to know and be able to do and how will we know that they know or can do it—are assessment questions. Being able to identify learning goals at the appropriate cognitive complexity (i.e., DOK level) will assure that the common assessments used to engineer collaborative conversations are valid and reliable.
RTI: The three tiers of a response to intervention continuum are built on the fundamental principle that the intensity of any intervention must match the intensity of the presenting challenge. Being able to match the appropriate intervention to either a small group of learners (tier 2) or an individual (tier 3) depends on valid and reliable assessment information to create a seamlessness between assessment and intervention. Inaccurate assessment results will, at best, create an inefficiency that neither students nor teachers can afford.
Differentiation: To differentiate is to be a learner-responsive teacher, which relies on assessing students for readiness and interest to create opportunities for the content, processes, products, or environment to be malleable to the students’ strengths, talents, and curiosities.
Unique Learners: Decisions about support for unique learners depends heavily on the ability to understand both the specific strengths and aspects in need of strengthening for our unique (and often most vulnerable) learners. Valid and reliable assessment information will confirm that IEP goals are on track, the language acquisition remains on a positive trajectory, or that the appropriate challenges are made available.
Feedback and Grading: Clearly being able to initiate more learning (feedback) or measure it depends on sound assessment practices and principles.
Student Investment: Students investing in their own learning doesn’t happen by accident; they need to be taught how to do it if it’s going to be meaningful. The ability to self-direct their learning, set goals, monitor their progress, and think metacognitively will develop only when teachers have the assessment literacy to create the conditions and teach the practices and processes to all learners.
Social Competence: Students becoming socially competent relies on assessment fundamentals that are universal. Teaching students to be responsible, respectful, self-directed, and empathetic (to name a few) still leans heavily on the identification of the goal, the establishment of success criteria, and the ability of the teacher to recognize strengths and areas for improvement so that the whole learner is developing.
21st Century Skills: The ability to develop learners as critical, collaborative, and creative thinkers will make assessment more essential than ever. While assessment methods may evolve, the ability to assess the 21st century competencies remains critical if students are going to develop the skills and dispositions necessary to succeed in an ever-changing world.
Building Hope, Efficacy, and Achievement
While assessment has always been about measuring achievement, assessment is not just a clinical exercise in number crunching. Learning cannot be separated from its social context, which means everything teachers do with assessment will either contribute to or take something away from the relationships they develop with their students. While teachers aren’t necessarily one assessment practice away from undermining all of their relationships with learners, there is no neutral impact.
In their book, Performing Under Pressure: The Science of Doing Your Best When It Matters the Most, Hendrie Weisinger and J. P. Pawliw-Fry (2015) identify the characteristics of those people—not just students—who perform better under pressure. While no one truly outperforms him- or herself under more pressure than he or she would otherwise, some people perform better than others when they approach inevitable pressure moments with confidence, optimism, tenacity, and enthusiasm; what they call the COTE of armor.
Assessment is, or at least has been, as responsible for creating pressure situations for learners as anything else they experience. Too often, assessment has been something students feared or endured. Weisinger and Pawliw-Fry are not suggesting pressure can be avoided; it can’t. But succeeding under pressure (where an outcome is dependent upon one’s own performance) requires a dispositional mindset (COTE) that can be cultivated. The implication for educators is clear. If assessment is responsible for creating pressure moments in school, and if students
need a COTE of armor to perform at their best under pressure, then it is fair to ask teachers to consider how their assessment practices contribute to—or take away from—their students’ COTE of armor.
Hope is everything. It’s about being optimistic, not naïve. When paired with efficacy—the belief that goals can be accomplished—it creates a potent mental paradigm that makes success inevitable. Teachers who put hope, efficacy, and achievement at the center of the assessment experience create unrivaled conditions where students expect to succeed. That mental expectation is powerful since, as Harvard business professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter (2004) once wrote, “Expectations about the likelihood of eventual success determine the amount of effort people are willing to put in.” Without hope and efficacy, the learning is over.
Six Tenets of Assessment
When my colleagues (Cassandra Erkens and Nicole Vagle) and I set out to write Essential Assessment: Six Tenets for Bringing Hope, Efficacy, and Achievement to the Classroom (2017), we had not predetermined that there would be six tenets. As we reviewed the assessment research over the past couple of decades, we were looking for the fundamental and universal practices that had proven to be the most favorable assessment practices; for all we knew, there could have been four, eight, or twelve. What emerged was, of course, six fundamental practices and mindset shifts that create a culture of learning where assessment is a natural and integral part of the instructional process. What follows is a brief summary of each tenet and its role in creating the optimal learning conditions; the tenets are not listed in order of priority.
Assessment Purpose: Understanding our assessment purpose means we have a clear picture of how we intend to use the emerging assessment results before the assessment. The formative purpose of assessment is about continual learning; the summative purpose is about the verification of learning. Though they serve a different purpose, formative and summative ssessment can develop a seamless, mutually supportive relationship.
Assessment Architecture: Assessment is most effective when it is planned, purposeful, and intentionally sequenced in advance of instruction by all of those responsible for the delivery. Assessment architecture is a blueprint that tightly sequences essential standards, teases out learning targets, identifies the assessments that reflect learning targets, and determines the use of assessments.
Accurate Interpretation: The interpretation of assessment results must be accurate, accessible, and reliable. This means the items and tasks in our assessments must accurately reflect the standards on which we are gathering information. Essential to the accurate interpretation is clear criteria, aligned inferences of what the criteria represent, and continual calibration to avoid inconsistencies or tangential influences.
Agility: Being instructionaly agile means teachers have the capacity to use emerging evidence to make real-time modifications within the context of the expected learning. Whether at the classroom or school level, the true power of assessment comes when emerging results are used to determine what comes next in the learning.
Communication: The communication of assessment results must generate productive responses from learners and all stakeholders who support them. Whether through feedback or grades, the communication of proficiency must serve as a catalyst for continual learning rather than inhibiting it.
Student Investment: There is a symbiotic relationship between assessment and self-regulation. This means that assessment can be used to teach students to be self-regulatory about their learning; however, by learning to be self-regulatory and metacognitive, student assessment results are likely to increase. When learners understand this, they are able to track their progress, reflecting on what they are learning and where they need to go next.
Together, and when implemented consistently, these six tenets of assessment will serve as a foundation where real hope, real efficacy, and real achievement result. Assessment is relationship building. How we handle all aspects of assessment says more about our relationships with our students than anything else we do; it’s how we authentically connect to each and every learner.
Six Tenets & Grading
Grading is assessment, so rather than having philosophical debates and discussions about grading, schools and districts would be wise to have an assessment conversation. Grading is the verification of learning; it is the summative purpose. Of course, schools and districts can choose to create new reporting symbols, leveled descriptors, or move to a more anecdotal form of reporting; however, the process of verifying learning and the reporting out to others (primarily parents) is unlikely to ever leave us. Building an assessment foundation for grading reform is the most efficient and effective way to bring about a renewed focus on what grades are and what they are supposed to communicate. The foundation of assessment fundamentals is how we will build a standards-based mindset (Schimmer, 2016).
Grading practices that leave students feeling hopeless and less efficacious about their eventual success are counterproductive and need to be stopped:
• Assessment Purpose: A balanced assessment system (i.e., practice versus games) is always necessary to ensure that the original intent of the assessment is carried out. This is how teachers will know what to grade and what not to grade; when to initiate more learning and when to measure it.
• Assessment Architecture: Grades are only as accurate as the assessments
they’re based on, so being planned and purposeful about assessment will ensure that assessments are not just covering a topic, but that they are assessing at the appropriate level of complexity; that’s rigor.
• Accurate Interpretation: Accurate grades are the result of accurate inferences and interpretations by the teacher examining the evidence. Working to make success criteria transparent and calibrating with colleagues on those criteria to ensure consistency among colleagues is the pathway to producing reliable grades that reflect what a student knows, understands, or can do.
• Instructional Agility: Grading should result in teachers (and students) knowing what comes next in the learning. Grades, if directly connected to the quality of the demonstrations students produce, can be moments when students (with teachers) create a next steps plan for how to keep improving. While the formative purpose may serve a more vital role in the dayto-day maneuvers, being instructionally agile as a result of grades can take on a larger scope of maneuver where a long-term plan or adjustment focuses on how to increase overall achievement.
• Communication of Results: Grades should elicit productive responses from students. Even though grades can feel final, it’s important that students and parents see that the moments of verification can also serve as a springboard from which students can keep learning and growing.
• Student Investment: Grading practices and processes need to be transparent enough to allow students to be fully invested before, during, and after. This is not about students giving themselves grades; it is about bringing them inside the process to experience what it’s like to synthesize their own learning.
Again, as schools and districts continue to strive to bring grading back into alignment with teaching (teaching to standards should mean grading by those very same standards), anchoring those reforms on sound assessment practices and processes will prevent less-than-favorable deviations from the ideal alignment between learning and reporting.
Six Tenets & 21st Century Learning
Cassandra, Nicole, and I wrote Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens in Today’s Classrooms: Assessing Seven Critical Competencies because we know that assessment is the place where educators most commonly get stuck when contemplating how 21st century competencies (critical thinking, collaborative thinking, creative thinking, communication, self-regulation, digital citizenship, and social competence) will take their place as the instructional focal point in classrooms. We knew that, again, assessment is timeless and universal, and that the six tenets of assessment could still remain the foundation from which schools shape the assessment experience to be more aligned with goals of a 21st century classroom.
• Assessment Purpose: It will still be necessary to unpack/repack critical competencies, since teachers will need to create learning progressions for how students become more effective thinkers. There will still be practice, and there will still be games, which means there will still be the formative and summative purposes.
• Assessment Architecture: Critical competencies represent higher, more sophisticated ways of thinking, which means, more than ever, teachers will need to ensure that tasks are well designed to elicit authentic, sophisticated evidence of thinking.
• Accurate Interpretation: Accurate inferences and interpretations by the teacher will be necessary, since performance assessment is likely to be more prominent. With performance assessments that emulate authentic contexts, the able to accurately infer quality has never been more important.
• Instructional Agility: Making real-time maneuvers based on emerging results, evidence, or revelations is still critical as students scaffold their way toward innovative thinking, creative solutions, and deeper explorations of the world around them.
• Communication of Results: Feedback (and verification) on strengths and areas in need of strengthening as students develop the skill and will of the critical competencies will still be essential to advance the development of 21st century thinkers.
• Student Investment: Student driven, metacognitive experiences make it essential that students learn how to own and invest in their development. A hallmark of the critical competencies is developing the habit of self-regulation and learners’ abilities to accurately recognize what’s next for their development within each of the critical competencies.
Regardless of our instructional focus, assessment will continue to be the engine that drives success throughout the system. While the focus on critical competencies might be new, the assessment fundamentals that underpin those competencies are universal and timeless.
Imagining a New Assessment Paradigm
Imagine an assessment paradigm that prioritizes hope and efficacy. Imagine an assessment paradigm that seeks to create confident learners who are tenacious in their pursuit of excellence. Imagine an assessment paradigm where learners see assessment as an opportunity, not something to be feared; just imagine. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a ways to go.
For some, this imagined new assessment paradigm is now. The work in how assessment drives instructional decisions and maneuvers through next steps has long been part of many teachers’ practices. Still for others, old habits are challenging to break, and the model of assessment-aspoint-accumulation still lingers. Assessment will always be relevant, since it is one of the few aspects of education that cannot be sidestepped for the entirety of one’s career. Assessment can be done poorly, but it is unavoidable. Assessment is the engine, and by becoming assessment literate, educators will unlock the opportunities to maximize achievement and develop unrelenting learners.
Erkens, C., Schimmer, T., & Vagle, N. (2017). Essential assessment: Six tenets for bringing hope, efficacy, and achievement to the classroom. Bloomington, IN. Solution Tree.
Erkens, C., Schimmer, T., & Vagle, N. (2019) Growing tomorrow’s citizens in today’s classrooms: Assessing seven critical competencies. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Kanter, R. M. (2004). Confidence: How winning streaks and losing streaks begin and end. New York: Crown Business.
Schimmer, T. (2016). Grading from the inside out: Bringing accuracy to student assessment through a standards-based mindset. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Weisinger, H. & Pawliw-Fry, J. P. (2015). Performing under pressure: The science of doing your best when it matters most. New York: Crown Business Publishing.
Tom Schimmer is an author and a speaker with expertise in assessment,
grading, leadership, and behavioral support. An educator for more than 20
years, Tom is a former district-level leader, school administrator, and teacher. As a district-level leader, he was a member of the senior management team responsible for overseeing the efforts to support and build the instructional capacities of teachers and administrators.
Tom is a sought-after speaker who presents internationally for
schools and districts.
He earned a teaching degree from Boise State University and a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of British Columbia.
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