George Lucas Educational Foundation

How Should We Measure Student Learning? 5 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. 
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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

Assessment icon: Illo of an eye on top of shoulders


5 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 (61) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Amy Crismon-Noguera's picture

Thank you so much for your response. It is nice to hear that this is normal, and I enjoyed the closet analogy. I am going to check out tonight. Once again, thank you for your positive response. I needed it. =)

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Glad I could help Amy. Let us know if we can do anything to help.

Shurion Fields's picture

Great Food For Thought. Enjoyed the variety of ways students can be assessed without pencil and multiple choice items.

abigail_pollak's picture
Marketing Assistant

Increased access to and participation in the general education curriculum requires that assessment personnel and related service providers are familiar with academic achievement standards and expectations.

Martin Diaz Alvarez's picture
Martin Diaz Alvarez
Business Consultant

Edutopia is really a place for wonderful information when it comes to education. Keep on sharing useful information and ideas.

Dylan's picture

Does anyone can tell me who is the author of this article? I want to quote it in my group research. Thanks.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Hey Dylan. The article was written by our staff and, since we don't list an author, should be attributed to Edutopia. Good luck with your research!

kdavis's picture

As an educator for almost 20 years, I have watched how standardized testing has taken its toll not only on the educators but on our children. I do believe that assessments can be used as powerful tools to drive our instruction. The assessments need to be aligned to the curriculum and given frequently. They need to be formative and students should be provided with meaningful feedback about the learning process during the learning process. If we use assessments in this way, we can plan and implement lessons that are student centered and personalized because our lessons will be grounded in formative data. I also agree that our formative assessments need to be varied and culturally relevant. As far as our summative assessments, the article pointed out that we need to be providing our students with authentic culminating projects that allows our children to communicate, collaborate, use higher order thinking and problem solve. In other words, we need to give our students experiences that will help them in the world outside of the classroom. These 21st century skills are not measured on our standardized tests and many teachers, not all, often feel pressured to teach to those standardized tests because that is how we are evaluated. This article was very informative and spot on and I think my district is moving in the right direction with regards to how we use formative and summative assessments.

danrudd6's picture

After reading the article, I have to say that I love the idea of performance based assessments because it gives content meaning. Far too often in American education we focus our learning on standardized tests and this causes the content to lose meaning because students do not see how it fits into their lives outside of the test. Students and teachers spend countless hours preparing for a test, and this in turn results in students losing interest in subject material and teachers losing a passion for content.
When thinking of these performances based tasks, I think of Dewey and Piaget and their focus on real-world scenarios in teaching and education. Performance based tasks give content meaning because they apply content to real-world situations that extend beyond a typical test. They almost always instantly incorporate rigor because they force students to comprehend the meaning of a specific task. I also agree with this article because performance based assessments help to build skills needed in the twenty-first century involving teamwork and collaboration. Finally, I think these types of assessments help to identify a more accurate representation of a school system. I think tasks like the ones mentioned above are more likely to help develop the whole child rather than the part of a child that takes tests. I think school systems should continue to encourage the use of performance based tasks and should move away from standardized testing to give every child an equal opportunity. Students living in urban setting do not have equitable opportunities to perform well on these tests, and typically perform better on tasks because it gives content meaning.

I.DeLaTorre's picture

I think the article it on a lots of good points. One of the ones that stood out for me was the section on feedback. I think that many times teachers are pressed with their time and they do not offer the reflection piece of feedback. They move on to the next subject or next topic because time does not permit them to stay in that area.

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