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Published in Print: May 3, 2000, as Teachers, Assessment, And the Standards Movement

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Teachers, Assessment, And the Standards Movement

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Is assessment about sorting students into those who can and those who can't?

The standards movement holds the promise of revolutionizing teaching and learning in our schools. It can only do so, however, if teachers fully understand the power of assessment in the service of student learning. For many teachers, the support of both effective teacher education and positive district policies on standards and assessment makes all the difference. Here is one such story:

Karen teaches middle school science in an urban district. She actively participated in the development of the district’s standards for her subject and is excited by the growth she has seen in her students. Karen likes the fact that the standards make clear the expectations for science learning—not only for students and teachers, but also for parents and the community. The science standards integrate knowing and doing, so that students are expected to engage in inquiry as they master science’s "big ideas" of content and process.

With her 7th graders, Karen maintains a focus on inquiry, building toward the required district demonstrations, which include a science performance assessment, a science project, and a science portfolio. She sees assessment as a broader function than these "official" demonstrations; her daily work with students incorporates many shorter assessments geared to building students’ knowledge and skills, giving them feedback along the way.

For example, Karen worked with other teachers to develop an "inquiry guide" worksheet, with interesting graphics to remind students that the order of steps in the scientific method is based on a logical process. Her students do not memorize the steps; they practice them in a variety of hands-on experiments. Karen knows that if she asks a closed-ended question like, "What are the steps in the scientific method?" she will not gain useful diagnostic information. More important, she won’t know who can go beyond naming the stages to applying the kind of thinking required by each stage.

So after several weeks of active learning, Karen asks her students to reflect on how the steps make sense in the experiments they have conducted. She often uses reflection as a way to help students probe their own understanding and raise questions about their learning. Karen’s feedback to students on their work is another key factor in their learning; reviewing their work, she circles the criteria they have clearly met and holds conferences with them about areas that need further work in their next project. After they become familiar with the criteria, students also engage in self-assessment, which reinforces the meaning of the criteria and helps them take responsibility for their learning.

Students keep records of their work in science, building a collection of samples so that they can make selections for their portfolios. Karen sees this portfolio work, too, as an active process rather than a static collection. In comparison-and-contrast exercises, she asks students to re-examine two entries, focusing either on differences in science content or on variations in the types of science skills required. Not only do such exercises build the higher-order thinking skills the district standards call for, but they also have an impact on student engagement. Karen has noticed that students are more careful with their work samples when they see that they will be used again in another setting.

Because Karen’s middle school is arts-focused, she incorporates some exercises that other science teachers in the district may not use, but which she finds valuable in helping some reluctant science students become engaged with the content. In a physical-science unit focused on the structure and properties of matter, chemical reactions, and motions and forces, for example, she asks the students to "translate" their understanding of the concepts into music, art, dance, and drama. Karen often tells other teachers that the arts can provide both access to learning and a way for students to express their understanding that is not available in other modes.


As a result of her district’s focus on "school to work" as a way to build higher-order-thinking skills and connections to the community, Karen leads a group of teachers in her school in a yearly event that showcases students’ ability to use science concepts and processes. On "Imagineering Day," the school invites engineers from area businesses to the school to engage the students in a simulated project, such as finding the solution to an environmental problem. The students work with an engineer in teams of three or four, coming up with their own solution to the problem, which they present to another small group for critique. The students and the engineers use the criteria for science thinking as well as the criteria for presentations, and each student gets one-on-one feedback from the engineer in his or her group.

Early on, they used ‘one size fits all’ rubrics, but now they realize the need to tailor rubrics to the specific assessment task.

Karen’s grade book contrasts with many other teachers’ ways of keeping records as well. She maintains a record not only of the projects and written analyses or reflections students have completed, but also of their mastery of the key criteria to be assessed in the district’s proficiency demonstrations. On the feedback sheet she prepares for the students, she lists the appropriate criteria for each project or written piece. Students work toward mastery of the criteria and know that mistakes they make early on will not be "averaged in" to their final grade, provided, of course, that they learn from those mistakes.

Karen’s district has been working at performance assessment for almost 10 years and has worked through a number of critical issues. At first, educators were not clear about the content-specific nature of assessment, but as they have worked with the development of tasks, they have come to see how the processes and assumptions of the subject area, as well as the content, guide the design of assessments. Early on, they used "one size fits all" rubrics, but now they realize the need to tailor rubrics to the specific assessment task. They also have begun to see how certain cross-cutting skills like writing and speaking can be assessed across the subject areas, and yet require criteria to address the accuracy and appropriateness of the subject-specific content incorporated in communication.


Karen’s practice demonstrates what the faculty at my teacher-preparing institution call assessment-as-learning. This, in our philosophy, is "a multidimensional process, integral to learning, that involves observing performances of an individual learner in action and judging them on the basis of public developmental criteria, with resulting feedback to the learner."

Most important to assessment-as-learning are these elements identified by the college’s faculty, all of which are evident in Karen’s work with her students:

  • Performance. Assessment of student performance allows Karen to have a sense not only of what students know, but also of what they can do with what they know. She creates projects that will make visible the outcomes she and the district care about: thinking, problem-solving, use of science knowledge in context.
  • Public, explicit outcomes and criteria. Karen’s district provides a clear picture of the expectations of student knowledge and performance in science through the standards that guide curriculum development and through the proficiency tasks students must successfully complete. Criteria also are provided in the rubrics for these tasks; Karen adapts the criteria to fit the developmental levels of the specific projects she gives to her students. She is aware of how the criteria need to capture the knowledge and skills related to the science content, as well as to reinforce cross-cutting skills that reinforce the larger curriculum goals of the district.
  • Feedback. Karen knows that feedback is a powerful tool in supporting student growth. She relates her feedback to the criteria for the task, so learners will know where they stand and what areas they need to work on.
  • Self-assessment. As powerful as feedback from the teacher and peers may be, self-assessment can be even more powerful, once the learner has gained an understanding of the criteria. With developed skill in self-assessment, the learner can, in effect, become his or her own coach and critic.
  • Multiplicity. Karen’s practice demonstrates the importance of having multiple forms of assessment—multiple times to practice using knowledge, multiple methods and modes of assessment, and multiple contexts.

Multiple times provide the support for learning; too often students tell Karen that, in the past, they have had only one chance to learn something before the teacher moved on. Multiple methods and modes are important for two reasons—every student gets chances to express himself in a preferred mode, and every student is stretched in trying out new modes of expression. Using multiple contexts helps students see the range of ways what they are learning can be applied. Providing multiple experiences supports the development of cross-cutting skills, such as writing, speaking, and critical thinking.

  • Externality. As a concept, externality may be first considered as important in having students see the relevance of their work outside the classroom. This, in turn, may allow them to take varied perspectives on their own work, seeing it from without as well as within. Second, teachers can also gain perspective through externality, for example, by looking across a number of a student’s performances or by bringing in others not usually involved with the class to provide feedback on what they see in the student’s demonstration of knowledge and skill. A third aspect of externality is seen when a group of teachers creates an assessment that will be used across several classes (their own and others’). The district proficiency assessments in science, then, are, in a sense, external assessments.
  • Cumulative in nature. Two principles call for assessment to be cumulative in nature. First, the standards that guide the teacher are always larger than any one assessment or set of assessments. Thus, no one assessment can tell the whole story about the student’s knowledge and skill in a subject area. Second, students learn and grow over time. Thus, assessment must take into account the emerging picture of the student’s growth. In addition, assessments need to create a balance between challenge and encouragement—building on students’ current strengths and moving them forward into areas that need development.
  • Expansive in nature. Karen works with her students with the standards in mind. Developmentally, they may be at the beginning of understanding scientific inquiry, but her sense of where they will eventually be guides her work. She develops each assessment, then, to elicit from the students the most advanced performance of which each is capable. Such a design provides her with good diagnostic information, and allows the students to go as far as they are ready to go.

The picture of Karen I have painted may seem too ideal to be taken seriously. But there are many Karens at work in our schools as a result of the focus on standards and assessment in teacher-preparation programs and in their districts. What will it take to make more new and practicing teachers achieve Karen’s level of performance? The essential elements described above are clearly a place to start. In addition, I would suggest that teacher-educators—both preservice and in-service—concentrate on the following three areas:

  • Addressing assumptions. Teachers at every level need to challenge their long-held assumptions about assessment and see the implications for student learning in adopting other assumptions. Consider these basic questions to start a rethinking process:

Is assessment about sorting students into those who can and those who can’t? Or is it about diagnosing where each student is so that teacher and student can together set goals and identify learning experience to lead to those goals? Is assessment a series of marks that, even though not equivalent in size and scope, get averaged into a "final grade"? Or is it the development of a rich and full picture of the learner’s growth over time, with a cumulative sense of what she can do with what she knows?

  • Appropriate and inappropriate uses. Teachers’ knowledge of assessment must be strengthened to better equip them to judge appropriate and inappropriate use of various forms of assessment. Current policy in some states suggests a critical need for this knowledge. As the University of California professor W. James Popham pointed out in these pages last year, standardized multiple-choice tests are inappropriate for making judgments about schools and school districts. Rather than giving a measure of how effective teachers, schools, or districts are in teaching their students, these tests are designed to spread performance across a bell curve. They are not aligned to curriculum standards; nor do they "count" those performances that we want everyone to achieve—because if everyone answers an item correctly, it is thrown out in favor of one that discriminates.

Providing clarity about the need for multiple modes, methods, and times of assessment becomes even more important as some states are proposing a return to a single, high-stakes, multiple-choice test for promotion or graduation. Teachers need to be able to explain why this approach is likely to advantage some students and disadvantage others and to advocate for a more equitable assessment of students’ actual performance levels. They need to be able to explain how students can access learning opportunities through multiple approaches.

Teachers also need to examine the implications of various approaches to assessment. For example, if assessment is to be about using and applying information (as opposed to just giving it back), then it is important to give students practice in multiple settings and diverse formats. Teachers need to be able to apply knowledge about multiple intelligences by providing multiple avenues for both learning and assessment. But they also need to understand learning styles and multiple intelligences deeply enough to realize that, while learners ought to have the chance to demonstrate what they can do with what they know using an area of strength, they also need to develop areas not currently their strengths.

  • Relationships between types of standards. Teacher development also needs to address the relationships between and among content standards, performance standards, and opportunity-to-learn standards.

Key to understanding the relationship between content and performance standards is the notion that the standards are always larger than any one performance or set of performances. What is spelled out in content standards usually encompasses both breadth and depth, incorporating what it means to think like a scientist, for example, as well the many specific concepts of the field of study. Any one assessment contributes to a picture of the learner’s mastery of the content standards, but it cannot provide evidence of the whole.

If the whole represents our vision, then we should keep working toward that vision and not limit our de facto goals to a more restricted set of performances.

If the whole represents our vision, then we should keep working toward that vision and not limit our de facto goals to a more restricted set of performances. The opportunities to learn—both the breadth of the content standards and the skills required for specific tasks to be performed—must be provided in the classroom.

One of the things I see in districts with which I work is a troubling danger of reductionism in which whatever ends up on the districtwide test becomes the "real" standard, and the larger sense of what it means to know and do science, mathematics, and other subjects is lost.

Karen’s practice illustrates the balance that the classroom teacher needs to keep between the "big picture" of the content standards and the required demonstrations a district chooses to use as its "performance standards." Unless that balance is kept, students will not have opportunities to learn the full meaning of the content standards.


Mary E. Diez is a professor of education and the dean of the graduate program at Alverno College in Milwaukee. This essay is adapted from the author’s chapter in Assessing Student Learning: A Practical Guide, published this year on CD-ROM by the Alliance for Curriculum Reform.

Vol. 19, Issue 34, Pages 45,49

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