A System of Best Practices: Assessment Practices that Maximize Student Learning

In the Building a Strong Foundation for Learning Part 1 post, I posed the analogy of going to a personal trainer and considering fitness and health goals before coming up with a plan of action. Revisiting that analogy is helpful in understanding the role of assessment in a system of best practices.

After your personal trainer has helped you to map out your goals, you’d still not be ready to begin working toward those goals until your trainer diagnosed your fitness level. Your trainer would get a sense of your needs through a variety information sources such as noting your body measurements, testing weight, height, BMI, and discovering your exercise and health history through a serious of questions. This important step would help determine your needs relative to your goals, bring to light any background information that might impact your progression toward those goals, and highlight your strengths and preferences so that you will be motivated to work toward those goals.

This is analogous to the function of effective assessments. They diagnose students’ needs relative to substantive and worthwhile goals, bring to light background information that might impact students’ progression toward those goals, and highlight strengths and preferences so that students are motivated during the process of learning. In short, assessments should determine the most effective routes for students in working toward learning goals.

Truly effective assessments will:

  • Be ongoing – Assessments should not just occur at the end of a lesson or unit; rather they should be an ongoing way for teacher diagnosis of student needs for the purpose of providing effective, needs-based routes to the same worthwhile learning goals.
  • Be closely aligned to the learning goals – It is vital to make sure that any assessments are aligned to the established goals.       This means that any assessments given to students measure students understanding, skills, content knowledge, and dispositions relative to the learning goals.
  • Be valid and reliable measures of student understanding, skills, and content knowledge – Validity refers to the kinds of evidence that function as hallmarks of the learning goals with unambiguous results in specific characteristics in student responses, products, or performances. Reliability refers to the trustworthiness of the assessment regardless of the context of the assessment setting or student characteristics.
  • Identify both students’ needs as well as strengths and preferences – While it is crucial to assess for student need relative to the learning goals, assessing for student strengths and preferences can provide powerful insight into how to more effectively reach students. Capitalizing on students strengths and taking into consideration student preferences can help promote student motivation, engagement, and relevance.
  • Inform curricular and instructional decisions – In order for assessments to be truly valuable, they must be used to inform the decisions made as you plan for student learning.
  • Determine student needs as opposed to student deficitsAn effective perspective regarding assessment is as a tool to diagnose what students need to be successful rather than what students are lacking.

It is also recommended to view assessments as diagnostic rather than evaluative. Pre-assessments provide diagnostic information regarding student need prior to a lesson or unit and inform curricular or instructional decisions.   Ongoing formative assessments guide decisions during the learning process. And while the nature of summative assessment is often evaluative, – it is intended to measure the degree to which students have arrived at the understandings, skills, and content knowledge articulated in the learning goals at the end of lesson or unit – it can also be a source of diagnostic information for future student learning.

There are many different assessment formats from which to choose in diagnosing student needs. Because it’s vital to use multiple measures (i.e. a variety of assessments to gather evidence of learning) to effectively assess student needs and learning, it’s useful to have a variety of assessment tools in the toolbox. Ongoing assessment requires a “photo album” approach rather than a limited “snapshots” of student learning.

In general, design and use of assessments should be directly influenced by answers to the following questions (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006):

  • What are we assessing?
  • Why are we assessing?
  • For whom are the results intended?
  • How will the results be used?

It is especially important to think through these questions when designing an assessment or when considering whether to use a previously used or premade test to ensure that all assessments are (1) intentional, (2) aligned to the learning goals, and (3) useful for informing curricular or instructional decisions.

During the current period in public education where there seems to be an over-emphasis on standardized test scores, it can be easy to confuse assessment with these tests. Assessment practices reflecting research-based recommendations are highly beneficial. As I’ve mentioned before, assessment is our friend. The kind of friend that gives you a pile of money for your classroom and doesn’t make you pay it back.

Support Tools:


  • Hattie, J.A.C., (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.
  • Sousa, D.A, & Tomlinson, C.A. (2011). Differentiation and the brain: How neuroscience supports the learner-friendly classroom. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
  • Tomlinson, C. A., & McTighe, J. (2006). Integrating differentiated instruction and understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
  • Wiggins, G.,& McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
  • Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

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