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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.
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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

Heidi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wanted to say that I believe that all children deserve the chance to learn. That being said, I feel teachers should focus more on the skills for the test rather than the test itself. After all, the tests are on skills the students should know right? If children are all different, how can we judget them all the same? More teachers should modify lessons to reach all their students.

I have taught for three years and differentiated my curriculum to allow all of us to be successful. I know that a lot of schools base jobs on the test scores, but I really believe they should look at all factors for consideration.

Education is about reaching and teaching children. That should be our focus so we can all be successful.

Laurie D's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you Heidi. I struggle to teach the curriculum not the test. I believe that if the children can model the content in many different ways, then they will be successful on the any test.

Paul's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for your input on my question. I agree that students should be focusing on skills, and not tests.

Marc Severson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is not just that we are teaching to the tests - we are fostering mediocrity. We say that you need only do this to pass and make it accessible to all. Then you are done. That is not learning. Teaching used to be creative and open ended. We have lost that spark - we can no longer make fire and if the embers we now have are extinguished how do we warm ourselves? If the ashes are cold, from where will the burning desire to learn arise?

L. Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Testing is not the answer. All it does is give the "teacher" a basis for determining a grade. And, we all know that grading and grades are circumspect. Rather, a more true measure of learning is when the learner (i.e., the "student" using traditional and aniquated terminology and stereotyping) wants to know more about a topic or issue. This expression of desire for more is an affirmation that the learner has mastered current concepts and material and now wants to move on. In this scenario no test nor grade is necessary. What should be necessary is for the provider (i.e., the "teacher") to have the next level or dimension of concepts and materials readily available to present and apply once the learner expresses the desire to move on.

What we need is a system that is designed to cater to this basal learning behavior and can be applied in real time. Take a look at the definitive treatment "Education in America -- What's to Be Done?" developed by Trigon-International. This commission report presents an end-to-end solution that is actionable and affordable.

adnan zakir's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

i just want to ask u a question that how can we assess student's higher thinking.

Carolyne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just do not agree with standardized tests. As a child, I was the student who did not test well, even as an adult the thought of taking a test turns my stomach. I understand the need for assessment but what exactly do these tests assess? What I think would be more helpful is to give a standardized test at the beginning of the year and then give the same test at he end of the year to show student growth.
What I do not understand is the fact that we have to cover up anything on our walls that has writing on it. Come on now! In the real world, we are able to look for answers to questions that we have practically anywhere, so why cover up material that may be useful or even helpful. I always tell my students be "problem solvers not problem starters," then I am made to cover up my walls.

Pamela Sue Doty's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Standardized tests never revealed anything about my aptitude in art. All they managed to do was make me more insecure about my intelligence through low scores in areas that were not my strengths. As it was then it is still so today: art is a step child to the core areas. I understand the importance of science, math, and language, however, art is what holds them all together and gives them a user-friendly interface. Where is the core area in Art? I offer this:

The structural science of a chair is nothing without the industrial design to make it appealing to the consumer. The math used in deciding how much the chair will cost to produce means little if the color choice and fabric are neglected. Efforts to bring the chair to market go nowhere if a graphic-less plain paragraph touting the chair is posted outside the factory doors. How do you put a score on that?

Mabel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Carolyne

I so agree with you. As a child, I didn't do well with testing and it is the same now. I've seen students become ill right before taking the FCAT. I feel for our students. There is so much focus on testing. You are right about looking for answers to questions. We are constantly looking up answers to questions. We are learning everytime we are looking for answers.

Silvia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe that when we give the students real instruction they will learn and there is no need to teach to the test. Testing used to assess student progress and for planning future instruction is important. But too much emphasis is placed on the test results and I too find myself "teaching to the test."

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