Mathematics > Best Practices > Assessessment FOR vs. Assessment OF Learning
Tri-County Educational Service Center: Mathematics Course of Study
Assessment FOR vs. Assessment OF Learning

We need to rethink the role of assessment in effective schools, where “effective” means maximizing learning for the most students.  What uses of assessment are most likely to maximize student learning and well being? How best can we use assessment in the service of student learning and well being?

We have a traditional answer to these questions.  Our traditional answer says that to maximize student learning we need to develop rigorous standardized tests given once a year to all students at approximately the same time.  Then, the results are used for accountability, identifying schools for additional assistance, and certifying the extent to which individual students are “meeting competency.”

This traditional way of using assessment in the service of student learning is “assessment OF learning”—assessments that take place at a point in time for the purpose of summarizing the current status of student achievement.  This type of assessment is also called “summative assessment.”1

This summative assessment, the logic goes, will provide the focus to improve student achievement, give everyone the information they need to improve student achievement, and apply the pressure needed to motivate teachers to work harder to teach and learn.

The problem with this scenario is that there is virtually no evidence that our layer upon layer of large-scale summative assessments have these intended impacts.  Bob Linn, a long-time, highly regarded measurement specialist put it this way2:

“As someone who has spent his entire career doing research, writing and thinking about  educational testing and assessment issues, I would like to conclude by summarizing a compelling case showing that the major uses of tests for student and school accountability during the past 50 years have improved education and student learning in dramatic ways. Unfortunately, that is not my conclusion.”

Einstein's definition of insanity:

“Doing the same  thing over and over and expecting different results.”
Now compare this to assessment FOR learning.  Assessment FOR learning is roughly equivalent to formative  assessment— assessment intended to promote further improvement of student learning during the learning process.

Formative assessment is not a new idea to us as educators.  However, during the past several years there has been literally an explosion of applications linked to sound research.

In this evolving conception, formative assessment is more than testing frequently, although frequent information is important.  Formative assessment also involves actually adjusting teaching to take account of these frequent assessment results.  But, formative assessment is even more than using information to plan next steps.  Formative assessment seems to be most effective when students are involved in their own assessment and goal setting.3

Student involvement is anything you do that helps students:
  • Understand learning targets
  • Engage in self-assessment
  • Watch themselves grow
  • Talk about their growth
  • Plan next steps for learning.
Student involvement looks like:
  • Developing criteria with students
  • Students using criteria and rubrics to evaluate the quality of anonymous work
  • Students drafting test specifications based on their understanding of the learning targets they are to hit and the essential concepts in material to be learned.
  • Students writing multiple-choice questions that match clearly specified learning targets
  • Students talking about their growth, for example in student-led conferences
  • Students planning their own next steps for learning
Lorrie Shepard,4 past president of the American Educational Research Association, makes it clear that assessment has lagged behind instruction in terms of incorporating recent research on how humans learn and what motivates us—brain-based teaching.

According to brain researchers5 human beings have an innate desire to learn; we are born with intrinsic motivation.  Learning is required for survival.  The brain is built to seek information, integrate it with other information, interpret it, remember it, and bring it to bear at the appropriate times.  According to these researchers, conditions that tend to drive out this intrinsic motivation are:
  • Coercion
  • Intimidation
  • Rewards/punishments linked to self-worth
  • Negative competition; comparing one student to another
  • Infrequent or vague feedback
  • Limitation of personal control
  • Responsibility without authority
Things that tend to increase intrinsic motivation:
  • Providing a sense of control and choice
  • Increase frequency and specificity of feedback
  • Challenge without threat
  • Self-assessment
Which set of features better describes the traditional way we have conducted our assessment business, large- scale and in the classroom?  Which set better describes assessment FOR learning?

The goal of brain-based teaching is to let the brain reward itself for its own growth, just as it is naturally equipped to do.

Eric Jensen, 1998
I have a colleague who was teaching a class on portfolios.  In this class was a special education teacher who wanted to try student self-assessment in writing. She was afraid, however, that if students actually knew how low they were performing it would damage their self-concepts. But, she tried it anyway.  She had her students keep selected samples of writing in a folder, learning to assess it accurately using a well-known writing scoring guide, and describe their progress over time.

She reported that her students scored themselves very low at the beginning using the scoring guide—mostly “1’s.”  However, at the end, they were higher, more like “2’s.”  She also reported that far from being discouraged, her students were very excited because for the first time in their school lives they felt they had control over the conditions of their success—they knew that they had made progress and they knew why.

Assessment FOR learning can result in assessments that:
  • Encourage, not discourage
  • Build confidence, not anxiety
  • Bring hope, not hopelessness
  • Offer success, not frustration
What assessments might we conduct next week that our students wouldn’t want to miss?



1 In the classroom, assessment OF learning is grading.  It’s not that assessment OF learning is inappropriate, it’s just that it’s insufficient to maximize student learning.
2 Robert Linn (2000), Assessments and Accountability, Educational Researcher, 29(2):4-14.
3 There is increasing evidence that assessment FOR learning improves student learning.  In addition to the Black and Wiliam results, there is research on mastery learning: Bloom, B, (1984), The search for methods of group instruction as effective as one-to-one tutoring, Educational Leadership, 41(8): 4-17.  Rick has also reviewed a document based on TIMSS data, that shows dramatic effects of classroom assessment practices on student achievement.
4 Lorrie Shepard (2000), The Role of Assessment in a Learning Culture, Educational Researcher, 29(7): 4-14.
5 For example:  R.N. Caine and G. Caine, Education on the Edge of Possibility, Alexandria, VA:  ASCD, 1997; and Eric Jensen, Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Alexandria, VA:  ASCD, 1998.

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