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How Should We Measure Student Learning? Five Keys to Comprehensive Assessment

Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond shares how using well-crafted formative and performance assessments, setting meaningful goals, and giving students ownership over the process can powerfully affect teaching and learning. Read a blog about implementing comprehensive assessment in the classroom.
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Five Keys to Comprehensive Assessment (Transcript)

Linda: The United States is at a moment where it could really transform its assessment systems. Most of our testing is multiple choice tests, pick one answer out of five, which is something you will never do in applying knowledge in the real world. Our assessments need to evolve to reflect the skills and knowledge that we actually value and that we need schools to teach and our children to learn.

Human beings are naturally learners. We are learning every moment of every day. In school, we have particular things to learn and we know that students learn more effectively when we're clear about what the goals are.

Chinasa: I kind of like, I want like a goal in my head about what to do with information that I get. So if they're going to teach me how to do a one page equation, I want to know what can I do with that?

Erin: I look at the beginning of the year and I say, what are the big ideas that I want students to know in the whole year and what are the major skills I want them to be able to do? And then I backwards map those skills and ideas into little chunks. I try to have a really clear learning outcome every day that's measurable, so at the end of class, students can say, "This is how close I got to meeting the outcome for the day." We use the language, emerging, developing, proficient or advanced. If they know where they are on that rubric, then I don’t have to own that for every student and I think that's really powerful.

Linda: Assessment should occur early and often and throughout the process.

Lisa: I do a lot of formative assessments, so formative assessments meaning, it's not summative, it's not a test at the end of the week or the end of a unit. You're doing a lot of small check ins with the students to see where they're at and to see that they're growing a lot.

Teacher: How do you know that?

Student: Because I read it in the Saturn book.

Teacher: In the Saturn books, so you're making a?

Student: Connection.

Teacher: From text to?

Students: Tips.

Teacher: Very good.

Sheela: They are being steered very gently and very strategically, and the formative assessment gathering process is essential to that. You really have to know what kids know and don't know.

Linda: In a lot of cases, we give students written feedback on the paper that they've written but then we move on to the next thing and we don't give them the opportunity to actually rewrite that paper. And the research evidence is extremely clear that one of the strongest positive influences on achievement occurs when students get formative feedback that they immediately can apply.

Chinasa: I think that's one of the things that the kids don't really like, is doing the reflecting, but I think it's actually one of the things that helps us a lot. I think doing it kind of like helps you see the bigger picture, because I don't think that if I didn't do reflecting, I wouldn't really think about what I'm struggling with. I would just kind of want to move on.

Linda: Summative assessment just simply means an assessment from which we can draw a judgment about whether somebody has, at that moment, learned. A false distinction has cropped up in the United States which seems to suggest that it's okay for external summative assessments to just be multiple choice tests. In other countries, summative assessments that occur periodically are essays and oral examinations and project based assessments, so that what you're able to see about what students can do reflects more of what you actually want them to be able to do in the world beyond school.

Jill: So tonight is exhibit night. Every nine weeks, we have this big celebration of learning and the halls will be filled with parents and children who are all here to celebrate what their children have accomplished in the past nine weeks. We also use exhibits to assess the learning of our students. I like to go up to students and have them explain an exhibit to me so that I understand, did they get the big idea? Did they just do a project or do they really understand what they did, why they did it and what it means in terms of the bigger picture? What we find is that because the learning is so rich and it's so meaningful, that our students do very well on standardized tests.

Linda: Many schools that I've worked with have graduation portfolios where students have to complete projects. They often need to collaborate with others effectively as part of the work that they're going to present. They need to communicate in multiple forms. They need to be critical and creative problem solvers because they're going to run into barriers and obstacles and they have to solve them in order to complete this major project. So the blend of the cognitive and the non-cognitive skills that result often in them defending their work to a panel of outside evaluators really prepares them for the range of abilities they're going to need to have when they leave the boundaries of school. And I think it's possible to value these non-cognitive skills throughout school in the same way we value the academic skills.

Erin: We try to bring in people from the community to watch or judge their presentations and then just do things that's like, in your life, in a job, you might have to make a presentation to your boss about why your proposal should work.

Student: So ninety-one percent of the people I surveyed said that fifteen dollars for one unit is a perfect price for them.

Woman: Really nicely done, good presentation and I really like your product.

Erin: So trying to model assessments after real life experiences, I think is really important. No one in their job, I don't think, has to bubble in a standardized test.

Having a hundred and thirty students means it's really easy to have no idea if your students are learning anything because there's so many of them. That's when in the last couple of years, I've realized, the more that I can get them to take ownership of their learning, then I don't have to own that for every student.

Student: Something that I'm good at is researching in books and interviews and articles and to make sure that the information is accurate.

Linda: Ideally, assessment is primarily for the student and the student should own big parts of the assessment process. That can happen in a variety of ways: one is that they are continually engaged in self assessment and peer assessment, using rubrics.

Student: So writing strengths.

Student: Creating good claims.

Student: And then, areas for growth.

Student: I need to analyze my evidence in depth.

Linda: When kids have that opportunity, they begin to value assessment. Assessment is for me, as a way to get the feedback that allows me to become the person I want to be.

If we do this well, the kind of learner we should produce is someone who is self-initiating and self-motivated, understands the standards internally and is continually driving towards excellence, is continually developing their own learning skills, and is able ultimately to learn on their own, independently and collaboratively with others, in a world that is going to be very unpredictable and in which those learning skills are going to be the most important determinant of success.


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Special thanks to ConnectEd, Envision Education, Expeditionary Schools, and Grant Wiggins.

Learn more about the schools featured in this video: Bayview Elementary School, Edwards Middle School, Impact Academy of Arts and Technology, Manor New Technology High School, Marin School of Environmental Leadership, Normal Park Museum Magnet School, Sammamish High School, World of Inquiry School No. 58


Five Keys Video Series

See Edutopia's core strategies in action with our Five Keys video series. Take a deeper look at each strategy as we share the nuts and bolts of program implementation, give voice to examples from schools around the country, and illuminate the research behind the practices.



Assessment is at the heart of education: Teachers and parents use test scores to gauge a student's academic strengths and weaknesses, communities rely on these scores to judge the quality of their educational system, and state and federal lawmakers use these same metrics to determine whether public schools are up to scratch.

Testing forms the bedrock of educational assessment and represents a commitment to high academic standards and school accountability. You can't know where you're going unless you know where you are. But when the financial and emotional stakes associated with standardized tests are disproportionately high, this laudable goal gets distorted. Teachers begin teaching to the test simply to raise scores, often at the expense of more meaningful learning activities. And when the tests are too narrow a measure or aren't properly aligned to standards, they provide little concrete information that teachers and schools can use to improve teaching and learning for individual students.

Twenty-First-Century Assessment

The demands of the today's world require students learn many skills. A knowledge-based, highly technological economy requires that students master higher-order thinking skills and that they are able to see the relationships among seemingly diverse concepts. These abilities -- recall, analysis, comparison, inference, and evaluation -- will be the skills of a literate twenty-first-century citizen. And they are the kinds of skills that aren't measured by our current high-stakes tests.

In addition, skills such as teamwork, collaboration, and moral character -- traits that aren't measured in a typical standardized tests -- are increasingly important. Businesses are always looking for employees with people skills and the ability to get along well with coworkers.

Multiple Forms of Assessment

We know that the typical multiple-choice and short-answer tests aren't the only way, or necessarily the best way, to gauge a student's knowledge and abilities. Many states are incorporating performance-based assessments into their standardized tests or adding assessment vehicles such as student portfolios and presentations as additional measures of student understanding.

These rigorous, multiple forms of assessment require students to apply what they're learning to real world tasks. These include standards-based projects and assignments that require students to apply their knowledge and skills, such as designing a building or investigating the water quality of a nearby pond; clearly defined rubrics (or criteria) to facilitate a fair and consistent evaluation of student work; and opportunities for students to benefit from the feedback of teachers, peers, and outside experts.

With these formative and summative types of assessment come the ability to give students immediate feedback. They also allow a teacher to immediately intervene, to change course when assessments show that a particular lesson or strategy isn't working for a student, or to offer new challenges for students who've mastered a concept or skill. Return to our Assessment page to learn more.

More Edutopia Resources for Comprehensive Assessment

Comprehensive Assessment Overview

Comments (54)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lisa's picture

I think all teachers feel the pressure of standardized tests and we all want our students to do well. Pressures from districts and administrators can be very stressful. I personally decided to rather than teach to the test that I will teach test taking skills. I feel that test taking skills are lifelong skills that students will need any way. I do however a month before our state standardized reading and math tests give my students a few practices exams so they can get a feel for the layout of the tests. I teach 3rd grade and this is their first time taking state tests so I feel this is important. I always feel relieved after I look at their practice tests and realize that the teachingI have been doing all year long has been enough to prepare them for the actual exam.

Robert Moody's picture
Robert Moody
Elementary Music Teacher, Professional Clarinetist, Technology in the Class

This article was originally posted Match of 2008. Here in Virginia, things have only continued to worsen. I predict no significant change in this national approach until the inevitable crash as schools fail to meet the nearing 100% pass rates mandated by federal authorities.

I agree with this article, btw. Assessment is an integral part of any successful teacher or teaching experience. It is when the method of assessment is deified and mandated that true educators and bureaucrats are distinguished from on another.

Just my opinion, of course.

bamedbery's picture

I agree with this article. Miltiple forms of assessment do make students apply what they are learning to real world situations. I feel a very important aspect after assessment is the feedback after a student has demonstrated their knowledge. I have learned it needs to be immediate, consistent, specific, and fair. I try to let my students know why something is wrong and differentiate my feedback for different students. I think differentiated feedback is the best way to improve student learning.

Lauren Rekonen's picture
Lauren Rekonen
High School social studies teacher from St. Paul, MN

These high-stakes tests have really taken a toll at our school. We have dedicated our advisory time, which used to be time for Sustained Silent Reading, to teaching test-taking strategies. It is frustrating that these tests are overtaking our curriculum. Many times we have identified a need that the students have, but we cannot address them because we have to place such a high priority on the state tests.

Ezequiela Nieves's picture

There are so many wonderful ideas within this Edutopia system. Can you recommend any PBL list of ideas,and or resources for primary grades K-2?

Stacey's picture
Middle School Social Studies teacher, Bismarck, ND

I completely agree with your staff in that there needs to be a variety of assessments given to students to determine if they are developing skills such as reasoning, analysis, and evaluation. I am a social studies teacher and I would love to find some content specific articles, blogs, or other resources on how best to assess for higher-order thinking, such as reasoning and comprehension. Are there any specific resources that your staff can recommend so that I can better assess my students?
Thanks for you help! I love this site it is so helpful and really gets me excited about developing new strategies in my classroom.

melinstaedt's picture
Kindergarten Teacher from ND

Unfortunately our country requires us to use high stakes testing so students need practice taking these types of tests so those teachers that are teaching their students how to take a test and test taking strategies are setting their students up for future success. And you are right that parents and community members look at the test scores to see how a school or district is performing. I think that is sad because these tests do not demonstrate all of the learning that is taking place in a classroom because the high stakes tests don't measure everything.

I wonder though what I can do as a kindergarten teacher to prepare my students for testing in the future. My district requires all grades K-5 to take summative language art tests at the end of every unit. Unfortunately, these tests are a huge waste of time for my kids and myself because it shows me nothing that I don't already know and my kids sometimes 'bomb' the tests because they don't feel like taking the test that day, when really they know all of the information they are being tested on. So as a kindergarten teacher I am curious where I can look to find different forms of assessment that I can use with my students to measure their understanding of the material that is a better use of mine and the children's time?

Megan's picture

I am moving into a middle school teaching position this year, from third grade, and I am a bit nervous as to how to keep my students "excited" about learning. As students get older, I keep reading how they begin to dislike school in the middle level. What can I do to prevent this from happening? Part of me firmly believes that these are the grades where the bar is raised disproportionately high, and students are forced into failure, but I also feel that the pressure of standardized tests and regular assessment is a factor. Does anyone have any ideas how to balance the real importance of testing, without giving up on our students' success?

Chad Powers's picture

In trying to make my assessments more technology oriented, realistic, and modern, I am using more collaborative and project-based assessment. I am encountering resistance in my required courses, and even in some electives. I find that most students are willing to scratch pencil to paper for a test or quiz, however many refuse to collaborate or actually DO anything. They'd prefer a lower grade to performing tasks, and their effort level drops with every conflict. Do you have any suggestions for addressing this pervasive laziness which seems to grow yearly-in middle and high schoolers? We know these forms of assessment are not only more effective in promoting student learning, but also prepare them for high-stakes testing. That's all well and good, but what about those who don't want to work beyond the bare minimum paper and pencil exam??

Victor Concepcion's picture
Victor Concepcion
Graduate School University Professor

It is important to share these problems with other teachers of the school. In other words, to create in the school a culture of assessment and the use of such innovative teaching and leaning techniques. Otherwise, students' will confront ambiguity in the process learning and most of all evaluating procedures. I recomend the book Habits of Mind (Costa & Kallick,2008) to have a better undestanding on this interesting issue. Motivaton=Motor; Motor=Energy; Energy=Feed..... What are we feeding (cognitive speaking) students' with?

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