What does assessment look like?

In the traditional education system, assessment tells you how much someone learned. It happens at the end of a  unit or a semester, just before everyone moves on to the unit or course. No matter what the data says – no matter who learned or who did not – everyone moves on. There are two big problems with this. First, research tells us that people need feedback to learn. When assessment does not happen until the end of a learning period, no one is getting feedback. Which means no one is learning optimally. Second, when students move on regardless of whether they learned what was expected, their learning gaps grow. And grow and grow and grow with time.

Modern education uses assessment in ways that address these two problems; assessment is used as learning throughout the learning process, and it is used for learning to help students practice, reflect, improve, and eventually master learning. Assessment is also aligned with the learning targets. Thus, standards that expect students to use higher order skills (the top levels of Bloom’s taxonomy) require performance tasks and performance-based assessments. So what does this look like in practice?


  • Systems of assessments are authentic. This means there’s no “one kind of test” and not all assessment is summative. Classrooms and schools use diagnostic assessment to help students set learning goals, use formative assessment to give students and teachers data about where students are in their learning, and use performance-based assessments to help students apply their learning in meaningful, rigorous ways.
  • Assessments are consistent. In the traditional system it is often unclear what it means to be proficient. This means that passing in one class could mean failing in another. It also means a teacher might assess two students’  work differently in the same class, letting bias creep in. In modern classrooms, teachers calibrate their understanding of what it means to be proficient and use validated tools to assess student work.
  • Feedback drives learning. Students and teachers are using multiple types of feedback to support their learning: self-reflection, peer feedback, teacher feedback, tests, quizzes, and performance tasks. Students know how to take this data, study it, and use it to direct their own learning.
  • Assessment is used for improvement and accountability. In other words, students do take summative assessments at grade or learning level in order to know where they are against grade or learning-level expectations. Yes, that still happens. But assessment is also used for improvement. This means that students often get more than one shot at passing. If you fail your driver’s test the first time, you practice and go back. You don’t just ride a bike  for the rest of your life. It’s the same in schools. Students have multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning and master content. THe process of revision helps their learning in the long run. And,  assessment data helps teachers reflect and grow and helps leaders guide school improvement.


Questions to Consider

  • What does assessment practice look like in your school or district today? How are assessments  developed? What is assessed? Where does assessment fall in the learning cycle, and how is it used in classrooms?
  • How are you currently using assessment as and for learning? How can you build on these strengths?
  • Where do you see room for improvement? What would this look like in practice?
  • Where can you start? What are good entry points?
  • What support will students, teachers, and communities need to engage with assessment in new ways? How will you support them?