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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

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.

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

Bridgett Pressley's picture

I think project based learning is a great tool for teachers to use. It not only allows students to practice and develop real world skills, but it also allows students to show they know the content in a variety of ways. This can help students with learning disabilities because it allows them to focus on their strengths and present the material in ways other than the traditional written test.

Tasha Brannan's picture

I like how this article discusses the benefits for the students, including teamwork. In a classroom, this can help create a community of learners and provide the students with real-life experiences. Going along with the video, I like how the students put together a large portfolio to show to colleges and future employers.

Jim Snyder's picture
Jim Snyder
Math Coach and Interventionist

I am entering education from Alternative Licensing processes and am focusing in Middle Grades math. There is no doubt that the processes for relaying match content are the major point of the discussion. My work in my MBA program was Innovation and Business Process Inprovement. When I made the decision to move ahead on this career path (#4 by the way) I began reading at alternative teaching strategies. Readings on Innovation dating back to 1985 describe Math content delivery as a challenge in Process Need. (Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, 1985).

This book outlines of information for success in Process Innovation, there are several key waypoints identification individual learning styles and real-time student performance evaluation seems to be the

5 criteria were listed

Self-contained process Math content is not self-contained but is dependent on language arts skills linked to comprehending intent and process

One "weak" or missing link Individual students express unique missing links that could be linked to learning styles.

Clear definition of the objective Standardized learning objectives are clear but real-time identification of missing links and intervention strategies should be in place.

Specification for the solution can be clearly defined Solutions would be gauged to learning style missing links
Widespread realization "There ought to be a better way" This is a "given" but few resources dedicated to this type of intervention.

3 constraints were given:

The need must be understood Given
Process is understood but tools for delivery do not exist Given
Process must fit the way people want to do the work Given

I have participated in several certification processes for enhancing performance on standardized testing. Each improvement strategy is designed to diffuse the tension associated with each content area by showing alternative approaches to answering each question type. It does not compromise the underlying concepts for math or language arts but does give students with roadblocks to learning a path to see their way to success.

As I pursue alternative licensure, I am going to serve as Tutor and Intervention support for Middle Grade Math content. These criteria and constraints will be observed in comparison with perceived learning styles.

Peter Oren's picture

I know that some schools use narrative evaluations, which are completed by the teacher based on each student's mastery level of certain subjects, as well as other skills that are not measurable by tests.

Pamela Hicks's picture

Project based learning/assessment works well. Have students pick a topic to research. Have them write a paper, give an oral presentation using powerpoint or other presentation software, and have the students create a visual aide. In the paper have the students report significant facts but more importantly what is the impact of the topic in the past and how will it impact the future. You can have students work in teams but unless you monitor very closely, there are always those that will let others do the majority of the work.

Pamela Hicks's picture

Use a project-based lesson/assessment. Let the students choose a topic in the subject area and have them write a paper, give an oral presentation using presentation software like PowerPoint, and have them create a visual aide (model). In the paper have them give the significant facts as well as how the topic made an impact in the past and how they believe the topic will have an impact in the future.
If you have the students work in teams, make sure to assign specific jobs to each student to avoid having only one or two students in the group do most of the work.

Thomas Epling's picture
Thomas Epling
High school physical science teacher, retired, from Grant Nebraska

I spent many years working on committees to develop standardized assessments. It was a very frustrating endeavor. We teachers were often not on the same page, and I did not feel qualified for this difficult undertaking. I would have much rather spent my time and energy with my students, serving their needs in the class room. I realize the need for these assessments, but feel that they are often not authentic in measuring individual students' personal skills and aptitudes. They also need to better reflect skills that serve students in the world after school.

Jaclyn Twomey's picture

I think it is important not to "teach the test" but to teach the children test taking strategies. These strategies should include problem solving strategies that they can use throughout their lives. Teaching the test is a huge disservice to the children. However, explicitly teaching problem solving skills will benefit the students in all areas of school and their lives.

In addition, I think as teachers we need to focus on authentic assessments that are standards based and encourage the children to use the skills they have learned; not to just fill in a bubble. We should be challenging students to think outside the box using the skills and knowledge that we have taught them.

Ryan Siegle's picture

As I read this article I am in full agreement that things must change for the better. Our students 21st century learning skills are much different from those of the yester-years. While there are continued concerns about how we handle standardized tests I see the need for more than just multiple choice questions. It becomes a huge detriment to our students when out schools primary concerns revolve around beating the test and improving test scores. The system was put in place to improve student achievement, yet all we see is test score inflation. The scores we are seeing are not directly correlated to what students are actually learning in the classroom. That is why I see performance based assessment included in high stakes testing is important. However, I worry that our educational system will begin teaching to the performance test just as we have been teaching to the multiple choice test.

What can our educational society as a whole do to ensure this does not happen? Do you see this being an issue if we were to change the type of testing that high stakes requires?

Jennifer's picture

It feels like so many of us have felt the pressure to teach to the test by administration to raise the test scores. In my previous school, test scores were the main focus ALL year long. It was to the point where I was more stressed about the test than the students. I really like the idea of a project based assessment. This is a great way for the students to demonstrate what they have learned throughout the year without taking an 80 question multiple choice test. Students would be more proud of their work on a project than just scores on a test. I believe high stakes testing is the worst way to assess a child and label them by their performance on ONE test. Portfolios are also a much better assessment of what the child has learned throughout the school year. Collecting this evidence and analyzing it at the end of the year is a much better assessment of their true skills than the scores again of just one test.

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