Assessment Opinion

Assessment for Learning

By Rick Stiggins — March 13, 2002 10 min read
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There is another way in which assessments can contribute to the development of effective schools, one that has been largely ignored.

The evolution of assessment in this country over the past five decades has led to the strongly held view that school improvement requires the articulation of high achievement standards, transformation of those expectations into rigorous assessments, and expectation that educators will be held accountable for student achievement as reflected in student test scores.

To maximize the energy devoted to school improvement, we have “raised the bar” by setting world-class standards for student achievement, as opposed to minimum competencies. To promote greater accountability, policymakers often have attached the promise of rewards for schools that produce high scores and sanctions for schools that do not.

In all of this, we rely on assessments of learning to tell us if schools are delivering. The tests tell us how much students have learned, whether standards are being met, and if educators have done the job they were hired to do. Interested parents, communities, and politicians demand and deserve evidence of student learning.

But there is another way in which assessments can contribute to the development of effective schools, one that has been largely ignored. We also can use assessments for learning. Assessments of learning provide evidence of achievement for public reporting; assessments for learning serve to help students learn more. The crucial distinction is between testing to determine the status of learning and testing to promote greater learning.

Both kinds of assessment are important, but one has been ignored in our attempts to improve schools. Now we need a national, state, and local investment in assessment for learning. Compelling evidence gathered here at home and around the world tells us that such an investment will yield unprecedented achievement gains. Simply knowing that schools are to be held accountable for raising test scores is not enough. We must provide teachers with the assessment tools they need to do the job.

Assessments of learning have been the norm throughout the United States for decades. We began with standardized college-admissions testing in the early decades of the previous century, and it continues essentially unchanged today. These tests have not been used merely for college selection, however. For decades, we also have ranked states based on average SAT scores. This is assessment of learning for public accountability.

In response to demands for accountability in public schools in the 1960s, we launched districtwide standardized-testing programs that also remain in place today. In the 1970s, we began the broad implementation of statewide testing programs, and those have spread into every state today. Then we added a national assessment program, which continues today. And during the 1990s, we became deeply involved and invested in international assessment programs.

We must provide teachers with the assessment tools they need to do the job.

Across the nation, across the various levels of testing, and over the decades, we have invested probably billions of dollars to ensure the accuracy of the scores on these assessments of learning. Now, in 2002, President Bush has signed into law a school reform measure requiring standardized testing of every pupil in the United States in mathematics and reading every year in grades 3-8, once again revealing our faith in assessment of learning as a school improvement tool.

Assessments of learning are not limited to large- scale testing programs. Teachers also conduct similar “summative” assessments of learning at the end of instruction to determine what students have learned. These feed into the assignment of report card grades. Thus, they serve the same “audit” function as do state assessments.

Clearly, assessments of learning dominate. They are conducted within the classroom and imposed from outside the classroom.

How does assessment for learning differ? When it is done properly, teachers use the classroom-assessment process and the continuous flow of information about student achievement it provides to advance, not merely check on, student progress. The basic principles of assessment for learning are these:

  • Teachers understand and articulate in advance of teaching the achievement targets that their students are to hit.
  • They inform their students about those learning goals in terms that students understand from the very beginning of the teaching and learning process.
  • Teachers are assessment-literate and thus are able to transform those expectations into assessment exercises and scoring procedures that accurately reflect student achievement.
  • They use classroom assessment to build students’ confidence in themselves as learners, helping them take responsibility for their own learning and thus lay a foundation for lifelong learning.
  • Classroom-assessment results are consistently translated into informative (not merely judgmental) feedback for students, providing them with specific insights on how to improve.
  • Students work closely with their teachers to review assessment results, so that they remain in touch with, and thus feel in charge of, their own improvement over time.
  • Teachers continuously adjust instruction based on the results of classroom assessments.
  • Students are actively involved in communicating with their teachers and their families about their achievement status and improvement.

In short, the effect of assessment for learning, as it plays out in the classroom, is that students remain confident that they can continue to learn at productive levels if they keep trying to learn. In other words, they don’t give up in frustration or hopelessness.

The deeply troubling fact, however, is that few teachers apply these principles of assessment for learning because they have not been given the opportunity to learn to do so. Currently, only a few states explicitly require competence in assessment as a condition for being licensed to teach. No licensing examination now in place at the state or federal level verifies competence in assessment. Since teacher- preparation programs are designed to prepare candidates for certification under these terms, the vast majority of programs fail to provide the assessment literacy required to prepare teachers to face emerging classroom-assessment challenges. It has been so for decades.

We face the danger that student progress may be mismeasured, day after day, in classrooms across the nation.

Furthermore, lest we believe that teachers can turn to their principals for help, almost no states require competence in assessment for licensure as a principal or school administrator at any level. As a result, assessment training is almost nonexistent in administrator-training programs. This, too, has been the case for decades.

We remain a national K-12 faculty that is unschooled in the principles of sound assessment—whether it is of or for learning. And to date, as a nation, we have invested almost nothing in assessment for learning.

As a result, we miss out on an immensely promising school improvement opportunity. And we face the danger that student progress may be mismeasured, day after day, in classrooms across the nation. The dire consequences for student learning are obvious. School leaders and educational policymakers must come to understand that a hundred layers of differing standardized tests cannot overcome the negative effects of this reality.

The potential impact of the problem has not gone unnoticed. Many have anticipated the consequences and urged action. For example, during the 1990s, virtually every professional association related to teaching, school leadership, and educational assessment adopted standards of professional competence for teachers that include a classroom-assessment component.

In its 2001 report, the Committee on the Foundations of Assessment of the National Research Council advanced recommendations for the development of assessment in American schools, saying that “instruction in how students learn and how learning can be assessed should be a major component of teacher preservice and professional-development programs.”

“This training,” the committee said, “should be linked to actual experience in classrooms in assessing and interpreting the development of student competence.” It further recommended that the balance of resources and mandates be shifted from an emphasis on external examinations to an increased emphasis on the use of formative classroom assessment for learning.

Similarly, the Commission on Instructionally Supportive Assessment, convened in 2001 by the American Association of School Administrators, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Education Association, and the National Middle School Association, listed among its requirements the expectation that states ensure that educators receive professional development focused on how to optimize children’s learning based on the results of instructionally supportive assessment.

We understand what teachers need to know in order to be able to establish and maintain productive classroom-assessment environments. The challenge we face is that of providing the opportunity for them to master those essential classroom- assessment competencies. The depth of this challenge becomes clear when we realize that we must provide opportunities for new teachers to gain these competencies before entering the classroom, and for experienced teachers who had no chance to master them during their training.

There are no good arguments against balancing our assessments of and for learning.

In a 1998 research review, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of Kings College, London, examined the literature on assessment worldwide, asking if there was evidence that improving the quality and effectiveness of the use of formative (classroom) assessments raises student achievement, as reflected in periodic summative assessments. They uncovered more than 250 relevant research articles. Upon pooling the information on the estimated effects of improved formative assessment on summative-test scores, they reported unprecedented positive effects on student achievementpositive-effect sizes of between a half and a full standard deviation. That would lead to percentile-score gains of from 15 to 30 points, or three or more years in grade equivalents.

If applied to the most recent Third International Mathematics and Science Study results, effects of this magnitude would have raised the United States from the rank of 21st out of 41 participating nations to the top five. For perspective, the research on reducing class size reveals expected gains of only two-tenths of a standard deviation.

Most importantly, the Kings College researchers report that “improved formative assessment helps low achievers more than other students, and so reduces the range of achievement while raising achievement overall.” The implications for those struggling with achievement gaps between subsets of their student populations are obvious. We know of no other school improvement innovation that can make this claim.

There are no good arguments against balancing our assessments of and for learning. Everyone wins and no one loses. Students benefit from greater confidence and achievement. They come to understand what it means to be responsible for one’s own learning—the foundation of lifelong learning.

Teachers benefit from greater student motivation, more effective instructional decisions, and greater student success. Parents benefit by seeing greater enthusiasm for learning in their children and greater achievement, and through understanding that their children are learning to manage their own lifelong process of learning. School administrators and instructional leaders benefit from the reality of meeting accountability standards and the public recognition of doing so. Political officials benefit in the same way. Schools work more effectively, and they are recognized as contributing to that outcome.

But the price that we must pay to achieve such benefits is an investment in teachers and their classroom- assessment practices. We need to provide teachers with the professional development needed to assess for learning. Moreover, federal, state, and local assessment resources must be allocated in equal proportions to assure the accuracy and the effective use of both assessments of and for learning.

Only then can we assure families that their children are free from the harm that results from the mismeasurement of their achievement in schools. Only then can we maximize students’ confidence in themselves as learners. Only then will we raise achievement levels for all students.

Rick Stiggins is the president of the Assessment Training Institute Foundation in Portland, Ore.

A version of this article appeared in the March 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Assessment for Learning


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