Amy Janecek is the district level principal with Osseo Area Schools in a diverse suburb of Minneapolis. With more than 20 years of experience, eight of which she served as a middle and high school principal, she has also served as a secondary social studies teacher, secondary district office coordinator, and assistant principal—in diverse school settings, both urban and suburban.

New Year….New Me! Revisiting Assessments in 2021

It was with excitement and enthusiasm that I welcomed 2021 until the unthinkable happened and angry citizens stormed the United States Capitol. Frankly, 2020 was a year like no other so I could not imagine 2021 starting off in this way. The list of events that transpired throughout the year making it the most unprecedented included epic fires, social injustices, a pandemic with no clear end in sight and a divisive election among many others.  While everyone experiences the new year transition differently, I chose to focus on deep, intentional reflection, both personally and professionally. 

As we move into 2021, I will follow my teenage daughter’s motto “New Year, New Me!”. How does that relate to assessments in the classroom? A “New year, New Me” attitude allows for seeing possibility and building on what worked well in the likely reality of teaching in multiple learning models such as distant learning, hybrid or in person. Many communities have already experienced all three models at different times throughout the year. It is certainly easy to fall into survival mode with all the shifts and changes. With all that transpired through 2020, our students and educators have much to reflect upon. These reflections create opportunities to tap into student interests, curiosity and find space for students to express themselves through assessment practices.  It’s a time to take stock in assessments that worked well and identify those practices that did not provide meaningful information about student learning.  Zaretta Hammond poses questions in her book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” asking what will you keep doing, start doing, and stop doing? And once the answers have been identified, I would offer to dig deeper and consider the evidence of student learning that lead to these conclusions.  

How are educators authentically engaging students in assessment opportunities so that students can share their knowledge while their diverse perspectives are welcomed and valued? How are students provided different ways to share what they know and can do? Three approaches to consider are engaging student voice, providing authentic assessments and including student choice.  While these three approaches are not new, they are grounded in research and can be used to revisit practices that may have drifted away.

Three Approaches to Assessment 

  1. Engage student voice
  2. Authentic assessments
  3. Allow for choice

Engaging Student Voice

Adults who work in schools are often creating the rules, deciding on the curriculum and other decisions that impact the students without the input of students and more specifically, marginalized populations of students. Engaging students as a way for them to influence the rules, curriculum, celebrations and hundreds of other decisions can benefit students. This shows students their voices matter and they are valued stakeholders in the school.  “Given the assumption that student voice can increase student engagement, such efforts to give students more ownership of their education may be linked to improvements in student outcomes (Benner, Brown, Jeffrey, 2019).” Elevating student voice  in the classroom is manageable by making a few intentional changes when designing assessments for students. Surveys are a valuable way to gather information from students. This can be done in advance of a unit to inquire more about the best way students learn or to gather information about their personal interests such as asking for preferences about how they like to share their knowledge.  A survey also creates an avenue for students to share their personal interests in their lives beyond the classroom that can be used for making relevant connections when designing assessments. 

Other ways to increase student voice through assessments are through discussion such as a fishbowl, socratic seminar or triad discussions by asking each student to respond to a question for a certain period of time. Another way to increase student voice is through creative expression such as poetry, a song, piece of art or a mind map. I fell upon a teacher that created a rap song about how to solve algebraic equations so if a teacher can write a rap song, certainly the students can do that and even more if we create the conditions for them to show us what they know.

In one school, a researcher observed that the impact of increasing student voice lead to stronger student-teacher relationships, better instruction and more empowered students (Mitra, 2008). One powerful way to increase student voice beyond the classroom is allowing students to lead professional development for staff. When the tables are turned and the staff are learning from the students, this can be a way to engage in conversation with one another sharing different perspectives. This is an opportunity to listen and learn from one another resulting in increased understanding which may lead to strong student-staff relationships, a foundational element of learning.

Authentic Assessments

As an educator, have students ever asked the question what does this have to do with me? Why do I need to know this? Authentic assessments ask students to make real world connections with the information learned. Authentic assessments ask students to analyze and develop solutions to real world problems in ways that are more meaningful and relevant. Think of when you have been asked to complete an essay on a book topic that was of no interest. It is far more challenging to engage in the material and find the will to write the paper. In fact, some of those papers were never written because it is just not relevant to the learner. Wiggins (1998) established criteria when designing authentic assessments.

  1. It’s realistic.
  2. It requires judgement and innovation.
  3. It asks the student to “do” the subject.
  4. It replicates or simulates the contexts in which adults are “tested” in the workplace, in civic life, and in personal life.
  5. It assesses the student’s ability to efficiently and effectively use a repertoire of knowledge and skill to negotiate a complex task.
  6. It allows appropriate opportunities to rehearse, practice, consult resources, and get feedback on and refine performances and products.

Teachers have found creative ways to develop authentic assessments. A high school statistics teacher shared a map with students showing zip codes throughout the city, crime rates and median home prices. The students were required to gather additional data and use this statistical information to make meaning of the information. It’s not only about being able to gather data and use data to solve equations but ensuring the students are making meaning of the data to inform recommendations and decisions.

When designing an end of unit summative assessment, consider asking students to create a project or presentation that recommends solutions to topics such as climate change, policing practices, social injustices, rising costs of medical care or homelessness to name a few. In this case, ask the students for the topics that matter to them! 

Student Choice

“Giving student real choices in the classroom — having to do with the material they study, the assignments they complete, the peers with whom they work, and so on — can boost their engagement and motivation, allow them to capitalize on their strengths, and enable them to meet their individual learning needs (Parker, Novak and Bartell, 2018).”  Teachers design an end of unit assessment with a number of identified learning objectives in mind most likely using one way for students to show what they know. Often used are more traditional approaches such as multiple choice questions, a short essay, matching or true/false statements. While these can be an effective way, it is not the only way. When designing assessments, teachers must analyze the ways in which they are asking students to share their knowledge.  Vagle (2015) created a table to assist teachers in determining the best method that matches the learning goals. This table provides three methods including selected response, essay and performance assessment. Performance response lends itself well to student choice. It is important to consider the context of the learning goal and also recognize teacher bias if one approach is used more frequently than others.  For example, it could be possible that a teacher enjoys writing and finds themselves creating more assessments that include writing, but leave out critical skills such as speaking and listening. Using the table can provide a guide for the different methods while also considering how to give students choice with the options provided.

Reflecting on the assessments over time creates an opportunity to build in student choice. A few ways to include student choice in assessments are through content or product. A social studies teacher asked students to evaluate the community and identify a challenge within the community. Then students were asked to create a service project that would aid as a solution to their identified challenge. The process used was maintained similarly across all the projects including a process paper. However, students had significant choice based on their identified problem, recommended solution and how they were partnering with community members to develop a solution. 

Student choice is also evident in an elementary classroom where a teacher asked students to show what they know about a text in their literacy groups. The small group read the same text and the teacher asked each individual to show their knowledge with choice. One student created a presentation, another student took a video speaking about themes that emerged and another student created a visual drawing about the themes. This empowered students and allowed them to have choice in their assessment. While this can be more challenging for a teacher, creating a rubric that defines clear outcomes around understanding themes in a text can assist in keeping an assessment focused while allowing for choice.

As 2021 unfolds with much uncertainty, take time to create new ways for students to show what they know. Grab onto my daughter’s motto “New year, new me” and capture the spirit of the phrase by designing assessments to empower voice, authenticity and choice.


Hammond, Z. L. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Corwin Press.

Mitra, Dana. (2008). Amplifying Student Voice. Educational Leadership. 66. (3). 

Wiggins, G. (1998). Education assessment: Designing assessments to inform and improve student performance. San Francisco: Joey-Bass Publishers.

Parker, Novak, and Bartell (October, 2017) To engage students, give them meaningful choices in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan.

Vagle, N. (2015). Design in 5. Solution Tree.

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