This past May, I upgraded my vehicle. Since February 2008, I’ve been driving a 2006 Ford F-150, which I owned primarily for towing my travel trailer, driving up to the ski hill, and navigating the mountain passes from the small town I lived within to Vancouver. While we now reside in Vancouver, we still have a travel trailer, and the need for more reliable towing capacity led me to the point where I decided it was time to upgrade. So last May, I bought a 2017 F-150.
What was I most excited about? Well, a few things. First, this truck has Apple CarPlay. In my ’06, I had to use an auxiliary jack and an empty FM station to play music from my phone. It also had a hard shell, tri-fold bed cover which I loved for its versatility; the old truck had a canopy. My new truck has heated and cooling seats (which basically speak for themselves) and a tailgate step to allow for easier access to the truck bed. All good reasons to be excited, right? But did you notice something?
I upgraded my truck primarily for the fuel efficiency and the towing capacity, but what I was most excited about were the bells and whistles: the gimmicks, the gadgets, and the peripheral features. This is also what often happens with assessment.
With the vast array of professional learning opportunities that exist, it’s easy to become enamored with the latest or shiniest new thing. However, investing in one’s assessment literacy is the most efficient, effective, and important professional investment any educator can make since:
- The principles of sound assessment practices bring almost any aspect, system, structure, process or program within reach of maximum impact.
- Assessment is an unavoidable process for the entity of one’s career; we can do it poorly, but it is unavoidable.
Six Assessment Tenets
At the Solution Tree Assessment Center (Erkens, Schimmer, & Vagle, 2017), we subscribe to the fundamental principle that assessment should be utilized to build hope, efficacy, and achievement. As well, there are six timeless and universal assessment tenets that, regardless of what is being assessed, are critical to eliciting accurate information that allows for an on-point response. Below is a list of the tenets (in no particular order of importance) and a brief explanation of each:
Assessment Purpose: When I assess my students, I am clear on the purpose of the assessment and how I intend to use the results.
Assessment Architecture: Assessment architecture is most effective when it is purposefully planned, designed, and intentionally sequenced in advance of instruction.
Assessment Interpretation: The accurate interpretation of assessment results is driven by transparent criteria and reliable inferences aligned with those of my colleagues.
Instructional Agility: Being instructionally agile means using emerging evidence to inform real-time modifications and decisions within the context of the expected learning.
Student Investment: Assessment practices and processes allow for student investment, since assessment and self-regulation have a symbiotic relationship.
A more detailed explanation of each tenet can be found our tenets can be found in our book, Essential Assessment: Bringing Hope, Efficacy, and Achievement to the Classroom.
Assessment is the Engine
In addition to its essential role in determining student proficiency as it relates to curricular standards, assessment sits at the center of so many important aspects of the school experience and drives success. In the simplest terms, there are so many programs, processes, routines, and systems that lean on sound assessment practices to ensure their effectiveness. You can utilize effective assessment practices without these practices and processes, but you can’t maximize the success these practices and processes without sound assessment fundamentals.
Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)
Sound assessment fundamentals are essential to efficient and effective PLCs. The four essential questions (Dufour, Dufour, Eaker, & Many, 2010) that guide the work of PLCs reveal how critical sound assessment fluency and capacity is in creating a cohesive approach to student achievement. The first two are assessment design questions, while the second two are about the response to the assessment results:
- What is it we expect students to know and be able to do?
- How will we know when they have learned and can do it?
- How will we respond when they don’t learn it?
- How will we respond when they already know it?
Successful collaborative teams in a PLC need reliable information to fulfill their mission of creating school communities that are responsive to the needs of all learners. With limited assessment fluency and capacity, the work of the collaborative team is, at best, clumsy, and at worst, counterproductive. At the heart of the PLC process is accurate assessment results that drive meaningful collaborative conversations about how we can increase the pitch of the growth trajectory for all learners.
Response to Intervention (RTI)
The RTI process hinges on sound assessment practices at all three tiers. The fundamental that drives RTI is that the intensity of any intervention must match the intensity of the presenting challenge. If it does not, the intervention is doomed to fail. At tier one (often referred to as the level of prevention), sound assessment practices create effective and efficient teaching and learning environments.
Success at tier two—more targeted group-based interventions—require a more precise and sophisticated level of assessment capacity. Here, assessment serves a specific progress-monitoring role on both ends of the continuum. Assessment results may indicate a successful trajectory and the potential to discontinue the more intensive interventions; results may also indicate limited progress and the need to employ even more intensive support.
At tier three, the interventions are more personalized. Assessment is more frequent, and monitoring is more intense. Reliable assessment results are critical in knowing whether the individualized plan is meeting the specific needs for the individual learner.
The process of differentiating instruction, or even simply providing differentiated opportunities, also relies on sound assessment information. Assessing for differentiation is primarily anchored on assessing for readiness so we can take advantage of the instructional opportunities most aligned to where students are along their learning continuums and know which of our students are ready for the next level of sophistication. Without sound assessment fundamentals, teachers may mismatch the differentiated opportunities to where the student actually is, since the assessments themselves may yield inaccurate information.
Whether supporting language learners, those with special needs, or those considered gifted requires particular attention to assessment fundamentals, as the elicitation of accurate information is vital to personalize the learning experiences of all three groups. Obviously, within these three identified groups are individuals who have unique needs that require unique approaches to their educational programming. Deciding what’s next for these individuals is a critical, yet sensitive matter that we can ill-afford to get wrong. Good decisions for these individuals are highly dependent on our collective ability to uncover areas of strength, areas in need of strengthening, so we might know the most favorable course of action going forward.
Feedback and Grading
Providing effective feedback is contingent upon accurate and reliable information about where students are in their learning. Research indicates almost unanimous agreement on the importance of feedback to improve student learning (Ruiz-Primo & Li, 2013). The advice, guidance, and direction fed back to students must provide a pathway to improvement. The key to effective feedback is to elicit accurate evidence of learning in a way that allows for the most expeditious turnaround while maintaining student growth trajectories. Without a solid grounding in assessment fundamentals, we may elicit inaccurate evidence through poorly designed assessments that leads to misinforming students of what comes next.
The accurate verification of proficiency on assessments (grading) and the communication of overall achievement (reporting) both rely on sound assessment design. In other words, our grades are only as accurate as the assessments they are based on. Grading and reporting is still assessment, so we must be solid and consistent in our approach to verifying learning in order to align the messages that both students and parents receive.
As we outline in Essential Assessment (Erkens, Schimmer, & Vagle, 2017), student investment occurs when assessment and self-regulation have a symbiotic relationship. Assessment can serve as both an input and an output to students being more self-regulatory about their learning (Brookhart, 2013). Assessment as input means we can use assessment to teach students to be more self-regulatory about their learning through a self-assessment cycle; assessment as output means by having students become more self-regulatory they generally become more successful (Brookhart, 2013). The effective and efficient use of assessment results by students doesn’t just happen; it has to be taught by those whose expertise can be imparted on the students. By building one’s assessment literacy, teachers will create the conditions that allow for the self-assessment and self-regulatory processes to thrive.
If we are to teach more than just the curriculum then the identification of what social skills are necessary for students to become socially competent is vital. The fundamentals of assessment remain the same; what is it we want students to learn or be able to do, what specific criteria will reveal that competence, and what intentional opportunities will we create to teach and elicit those competent behaviors. Learning to be responsible, for example, is really no different than learning to add fractions, which puts assessment at the center. We must be able to confirm for students (and others) that there is growth toward competence, or that they are socially competent.
21st Century Skills
By now, you’re getting the point, but suffice it to say, if students are going to become critical thinkers, creative thinkers, collaborative thinkers, and effective communicators (to name just a few), we will have to rise to the appropriate level of sophistication with what students are asked to do. We’ll need clear criteria, and we’ll have to hone our abilities to make accurate inferences; we’ll need to be able to communicate with parents and all stakeholders that students have grown in their development of 21st century skills. A much more thorough examination of the assessment implications when teaching 21st century skills can be found in our book Growing Tomorrow’s Citizens in Today’s Classrooms: Assessing 7 Critical Competencies (Erkens, Schimmer, & Vagle, 2019).
While each section above offers only a brief description, it’s not difficult to see how assessment practices truly are the engine that drives processes forward and ensures that decisions about next steps are on point. Sound assessment practices are essential, universal, and timeless—so while Apple CarPlay is a nice feature, it’s critical we recognize that our towing capacity and fuel efficiency are what matter most.
Brookhart, S. (2013). Classroom Assessment in the Context of Motivation Theory and Research. In J. H. McMillan (Ed.), Sage handbook of research on classroom assessment (pp. 257-271), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Erkens, C., Schimmer, T., & Vagle, N. (2017). Essential assessment: Six tenets for bringing hope, efficacy, and achievement to the classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Erkens, C., Schimmer, T., & Vagle, N. (2019) Growing tomorrow’s citizens in today’s classrooms: Assessing seven critical competencies. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.
Ruiz-Primo, M. A., & Li, M. (2013). Examining formative feedback in the classroom context: New research perspectives. In J. H. McMillan (Ed.), Sage handbook of research on classroom assessment (pp. 215–232). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.