Tom Hierck has been an educator since 1983 in a career that has spanned all grade levels. He has been a teacher, an administrator, a district leader, a department of education project leader, and an executive director.

Assessment: Why Bother?

The title of this post is intentionally provocative, and since you’re reading it, there might be some ideas rattling around in your head that might be aligned with that provocation. Let me be clear from the outset, however, that I am not on a rant to eliminate high-quality, effective evidence gathering.  

I do struggle, though, with the pursuit of numbers simply for the purpose of rank and sort, or mathematical computation as per a formula or computer program.   Educators are familiar with the work of Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and the four questions originally defined by the DuFours and Eaker. I want to zero in on questions 3 and 4:  

How will we respond when they don’t learn?

How will we respond when they have learned?

Framing the conversation

I also want the conversation to include discussing behavior as we do academics in terms of instructional design, assessment practice, and responding to the evidence gathered. The opportunity to work with hundreds of schools and thousands of colleagues has led me to believe there is a value assigned to providing high-quality formative and summative assessments to our students. However, the questions above deal with the response to the evidence, not the gathering of the evidence.

Despite that delineation, let’s begin by having a look at some of the evidence:  

  • A student who can’t read at grade level by 3rd grade is four times less likely to graduate according to Donald J. Hernandez (2011) in a paper entitled “Double Jeopardy: How Third-Grade Reading Skills and Poverty Influence High School Graduation,” prepared for the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
  • The outcomes get progressively worse—at, it is suggested that two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of 4th grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
  • In fact, the site states that if the student is not reaching proficiency by the end of the fourth grade, less than 1 in 4 (22%) will catch up.
  • According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 14% of American adults demonstrated a “below basic” literacy level in 2003, and 29% exhibited a “basic” reading level.
  • According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.”
  • The stats back up this claim: 85% of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are functionally illiterate, and over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level (

When I bring up this evidence, I am often countered with the graduation rates being at an all-time high. Indeed, the national high school graduation rate sits at 84.6%, with average state graduation rates ranging from 72% to 94%. Last year, there were 4.2 million students in 12th grade, so almost 650,000 did not graduate!  

Additionally, according to a recent study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education, 19% of high school graduates are functionally illiterate, which means they can’t read well enough to manage daily living and perform tasks required by many jobs. So, we can add another almost 700,000 students who are entering their adult lives unable to conduct many of the basics.  


  • 43% of adults at Level 1 literacy skills live in poverty, compared to only 4% of those at Level 5.
  • 3 out of 4 food stamp recipients perform in the lowest two literacy levels.
  • 90% of welfare recipients are high school dropouts.
  • Low literacy costs $73 million per year in terms of direct health care costs.

This simply can’t be viewed as either acceptable or as an endorsement to keep the system the way it is currently constructed.  

The trends continue

What about those that went on to college? According to College Atlas, 70% of Americans will study at a four-year college, but less than two-thirds will graduate with a degree, and 30% of first-year students drop out after their first year of school. A 2016 report from the Center for American Progress suggests that somewhere between 40 to 60% of first-year college students now require remedial courses in math, English, or both.  

I happen to believe that every child that enters kindergarten has the skill set and capacity to be a high school graduate-plus: the “plus” defined by their interests and aptitudes. When I think about a successful graduate, I believe that should include the ability to read, write, numerate, self-regulate, and communicate. In other words, there is room for improvement. How then do we get to these outcomes?  

Let’s go back to questions 3 and 4, but with an eye toward responding to the evidence gathered. Let’s be driven by a desire to do something different early in a student’s school career so that the later stages of their education are leading them to making viable and valuable contributions as adults.  

For example, if the research indicates that the data from the end of grade three is pretty static and reading proficiency at that point is highly indicative of graduation success, shouldn’t schools schedule readers and non-readers differently in the K-3 years? The response to this can’t be couched in structures like schedules and report cards that treat every student as the same based entirely on one number—their age. The gap between “proficient” and “not yet” is the smallest early on, and that’s the best time to close that gap.  

Equally important is the notion of stretching our gifted and talented students. Question 4 can’t be answered by volume, i.e., more of the same tasks and activities at a level the student has already demonstrated mastery at. We need to make these students “academically frightened,” not in a way that discourages their learning but in a way that challenges them to use all of their talents and abilities.  

Again, if we look at the early years of a student’s school experience, are educators guilty of contributing to the development of a fixed mindset instead of a growth mindset? If it’s about a number chase, do students get fixated on the importance of the number and not the learning? Educators need to respond to assessment evidence, especially gathered in pre-assessment, and build out their teaching and learning from that point.  

So, what makes a good learner?

Good learners pursue understanding diligently as they understand that most knowledge arrives after effort. Good learners are willing to put in the time to seek knowledge. They are persistent and don’t give up easily. They believe that effort promotes ability and that is effective regardless of current level of ability.  

Good learners are more likely to employ positive strategies, such as greater effort and new strategies in their pursuit of knowledge. Often, the description of a good learner gets confused with assigning behavioral attributes (quiet, polite, respectful, punctual) that may be characteristics of a good learner, but do not speak to the pursuit of knowledge and the stretch of skills outlined above.  

This post began with a provocation and it will end with a recommendation to all colleagues.

Why bother with assessment? All educators need to ensure that effective, high quality assessment is the engine that drives all of the decisions rendered at your school. Use the evidence you gather to respond to the questions concerning enrichment and differentiation, and plan for every student to experience success both in school, and in their lives beyond.

That’s why you should bother to engage in this highly effective practice.

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