Nicole Dimich Vagle works with elementary and secondary educators in presentations, trainings, and consultations that address today’s most critical issues all in the spirit of facilitating improved support of student learning.

Designing Assessment through the Lens of Engagement

It is not often that teachers consider engaging student work when designing assessments. The technical aspect of identifying standards or learning goals and matching them to items and tasks is certainly an important aspect of design, but it cannot be the only thing. There are times when educators talk of engaging instruction and design lessons and activities that captivate students. When it comes time for the formal, summative assessment (the student work used to certify a level of mastery), the whole thing falls flat. Assessment decisions are influential when it comes to how students engage. Sometimes this decision is made because of efficiency or accessibility — both are viable reasons but the assessment that loosely relates to the learning or is the easiest to score doesn’t necessarily provide quality information or engage students in meaningful work.

Quality assessment design is grounded in Assessment Architecture—the thoughtful description of the intended learning and the design of student work (assessment) that provides information on that learning (standards, learning targets and learning progressions). This architecture is most powerful when planned in advance. Designing engaging assessments is a central aspect of assessment architecture.

In a recent assignment analysis study, the Education Trust reviewed over 1500 assignments from 92 sixth, seventh and eighth grade teachers across six middle schools in two states. The goal was to review the impact of a more rigorous set of standards on the kind of work in which students are engaging: “Years of experience with previous standards told us as an organization that the best way to check on the progress of implementation isn’t to count hours of training, but to look instead at the actual work students are asked to do on a day-to-day basis – that is, their classroom assignments—and to compare those assignments with the demands of the standards themselves” (Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015, p. 3). Four domains guided their analysis and offer an excellent focus for considering how to design engaging assessments:

  1. Alignment to the Standards (Common Core): Each task and item was analyzed to determine how much it assessed the standard itself. This also ensures that the assessment items and tasks are on grade level and most importantly, not below.
  2. Centrality of Text: Each task or item was analyzed to determine how central the text was to student responses. To what extent did students need to use the text to respond to the assessment? How much did the task require learners to interpret, cite, or reference the text?
  3. Cognitive Challenge: Using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge (DOK) levels, assignments were reviewed to determine the cognitive level required. In addition, the team reviewed the extent to which students needed to do extended writing (multiple paragraph).
  4. Motivation and Engagement: Choice and relevance were the indicators used to assess assignments for motivation and engagement. What choices did students have when engaging in the assignment (all at the same cognitive level)? Relevance was related to the authenticity of the task, how interesting or important the task, and how a student might make connections to their own experiences.

They found only 38% of assignments aligned to standards; 55% of assignments utilized text, and 16% of those required students to reference the text; 4% pushed student thinking to higher levels (levels 3 and 4 using a DOK measure); and 2% included choice and relevance. While more research is needed to further understand these results, it is clear that more work needs to be done to create rigorous and meaningful student work.

The elements in the Education Trust assignment study provide a foundation to consider when crafting assessments. It is this type of intentional design that can both increase achievement, confidence, and students’ meaningful engagement in school. Consider these four elements in engaging assessment design:

  1. Learning: Describe the learning intended to be assessed. Create a learning progression that describes the beginning knowledge and skills and progresses to the most sophisticated application, analysis, synthesis or extension of that learning. The verbs in the learning statements are most important and determine the type of task or items that will best assess the intended learning. In the absence of this focus on learning, it would be easy to find interesting activities or tasks that may or may not capture what you want to assess.
  2. Choice: Choice is a significant driver of engagement. Build in opportunities for students to make choices about how to show or demonstrate their understanding or even more importantly how they might demonstrate application of the learning in deeper ways. The choices provided should not change in cognitive level.
  3. Challenge: Learners are motivated to pursue challenging work. The challenge must be meaningful, not superficial. Students need to be taught how to engage in challenging work, including the process to tackle the task In the absence of that instruction, students may be frustrated and shut down.
  4. Authenticity: Find local and global issues that are relevant and current. Ask students to respond or produce taking on a role such as author, scientist, mayor, or customer. Find an audience for the work students are producing other than the teacher or peers. Who might be interested in hearing how students are making sense of what they are learning and perhaps entertain solutions to authentic problems or issues in the local or global community. Consider the following questions in design (Vagle, 2015):
    • What themes or ideas give this unit relevance and coherence?
    • What is the “why” of the unit? What is interesting and relevant about the task and the learning?
    • What kind of student interests might be tapped to create these engaging and meaningful assessment tasks?
    • What ideas and essential questions create a sense of intrigue and provide context?
    • What stories, experiences, symbols, and traditions from your students’ cultural background could influence the way you formulate essential questions, authentic roles or scenarios, and assessments?
    • What authentic situation or role might students play?
    • How could the task contribute to local and global problems?
    • How do experts or masters of this discipline use the information?
    • What processes are used to solve problems and learn concepts?

No matter how big or small the choice, the challenge or authenticity, these elements of engaging design create a sense of meaning and purpose for students.  When learners ask the question, “Why do we need to know this?”, we must have a better response than, “Because it is going to be on the test.” These elements of engaging assessment design help create a powerful assessment architecture that puts assessment at the center and builds hope, efficacy, and achievement for students. The combination of identifying standards and learning progressions along with the thoughtful design of engaging student work has the potential to transform the classroom.


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. NY: Routledge.

Santelises, S. & Dabrowski, J. (2015, September). Do classroom assignments reflect today’s higher standards? Equity in Motion Series, Education Trust, Washington D.C. retrieved online December 7, 2015.

Vagle, N. D. (2015). Design in five: Essential phases to engaging assessment practice. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

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