Garnet Hillman is an instructional coach at Caruso Middle School in Illinois. Also a writer and presenter, she consults around the country on assessment, grading, and student motivation.

Assessment is Learning

How is the word assessment perceived in the eyes of students? Is it viewed as a tool such as a test, paper, or project, or a process to gather information? Furthermore, how is it perceived in the eyes of teachers? It is critical to get everyone on the same page with regard to the perception and purpose of assessment.

In some work this summer with a great group of educators in New Mexico, I had a participant come up to me with a look on her face that said nothing but excitement and enthusiasm. At that point, everything we had been working on had come together for her. She said, “What it really comes down to is that assessment is learning.” What a profound statement. I paused to reflect for a moment and my excitement grew just as hers had a few minutes ago. This simple statement encompasses so much in three short words. Assessment is learning.

When assessment is learning, it is an active process. It moves beyond the tools used to gather information about student learning to a place where students and teachers are able to take information and feedback to grow. Assessment becomes a conversation between students and teachers, as well as among classmates. It reveals where students are in order to progress with their learning. As a student myself, the word assessment was associated with the type of activity we were going to engage in instead of being a spark to light the fire of learning.

What can be done to realize the idea of assessment as learning in our classrooms? Here are five suggestions to get started:


  1. Involve students in the assessment process.


Kids need to feel part of the assessment process. Assessment becomes a much less fearful process when it is done with students, not to them. Nicole Dimich, in her book Design in 5 (2015), talks about two features to foster student investment in the assessment process. The first feature is that students “…clearly see and understand the connections among learning, homework, tests, instruction, grades, and improvement.” (p.11) Students may not make these important connections on their own; they can be made plain through classroom dialogue and discovery. Students engage in assessment and learning when relevant associations are made among all happenings in the classroom. They should easily be able to answer the question “Why am I doing this?” The second feature is this (Dimich, 2015): “Student investment is also built through seeking feedback from students.” (p.11) Feedback is not a one way street. When students are part of the feedback loop, the teacher and the student share a more robust picture of achievement and a more precise path forward.


  1. Infuse assessment into daily classroom happenings.


The learning process feels very disjointed when everything stops for assessment. Assessment practices should be infused in the process of teaching and learning so neither the student nor the teacher stops to give pause when it is happening. The pause comes when it is time to make decisions about next steps. Note that this is a pause, not a stop. It is a quick moment to make an informed decision and then move on. Assessment should be a familiar part of what happens when we learn. The less students feel like it is ‘time to be assessed’, the less high-stakes assessment becomes. The practice of finding out where students are with their learning, knowing where they need to go, and making choices based on those two pieces of information is a natural routine in the classroom, but the impact on learning is monumental.


  1. Show students how to interpret feedback and assessment results.


Students will not automatically know what to do with the feedback provided to them. For many, feedback (especially in written form) has been ignored over time because of a focus on grades. Moreover, the focus on grades can harm further learning. Providing specific, timely, and actionable feedback to students paired with time to act on the feedback shifts the focus from where the student was with their learning, to where they are going. Talking with students about what the feedback means and how to go about moving forward enhances the experience. According to Mark Barnes (2015), “The primary motivation behind discussions about feedback should be to clarify any misunderstanding of it and to help students make the feedback actionable” (p.70).


  1. Continuously learn more about assessment practices to support student learning.


Assessment practices are constantly evolving, and different ideas for classroom application abound. There are times when I feel in a rut with my assessment practices. The same tools keep coming up in my plans and it is time to shake things up a bit. Fortunate for all of us in education is the variety of places to find new ideas and strategies. Not only can you find ideas in books and blog posts, social media, and scholarly articles, but you can also get ideas for implementation and reviews from other educators. Now the challenge is not about finding the new ideas, but rather, determining the method that is the best fit.


  1. Work together with students to find success.


Learning is a collective and collaborative process. I cannot describe how much I learn from students each and every year I work with them. The focus of this collaborative process is success. This may seem like an easy correlation, but many times students don’t see things so clearly. It is our job as educators to show students that success is the goal – nothing more, nothing less. In his book Revolutionize Assessment, Rick Stiggins (2014) talks about the importance of getting students on winning streaks; the idea that success builds success. Stiggins states, “What, then, is the coach, teacher, or mentor to do to encourage success? Their job is to do whatever they can to convince the performer that success is within reach if he or she keeps trying” (p.44).


Involving students and teachers in an active assessment process where they can take information, interpret it, and move forward is the key to finding success in the classroom. When we think of assessment as the learning instead of as an endpoint, it creates a continuum rather than a sequence of starts and stops. Assessment is learning.

Barnes, M. (2015). Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning. United States of America: Corwin. 70.

Stiggins, R. J. (2014). Revolutionize Assessment: Empower Students, Inspire Learning. United States of America: Corwin. 44.

Dimich, N. (2015). Design in five: Essential Phases to Create Engaging Assessment Practice. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press. 11.


  1. Jason Ozbolt

    Talk about hitting the nail on the head! Great info and reminders for teachers to keep in mind as they design their assessments as an over-all component of their total curriculum and instruction in a student centered classroom.


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