George Lucas Educational Foundation

Comprehensive Assessment Research Review: Setting Goals

An important first step in effective comprehensive assessment is to set challenging, meaningful learning goals with multifaceted criteria for success.

January 29, 2014 Updated March 1, 2015
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According to two meta-analytic studies, students tasked with challenging goals tend to learn significantly more than students tasked with easy or no goals (Mento, Steel, & Karren, 1987; Tubbs, 1986). When challenging goals are set, the probability that learners will need feedback increases; thus, challenging goals must be presented in a situation that is structured to provide regular feedback so learners have multiple opportunities throughout the learning process to develop, direct, and evaluate their actions accordingly (Hattie, 2009).

The goals of K-12 education often emphasize college, career, and citizenship readiness and the “Four Cs”: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity (Council of Chief State School Officers, 2013; Darling-Hammond, Herman, Pellegrino, et al., 2013; National Education Association, 2012). An element of both frameworks is the goal that students can transfer what they learn in school to solve novel problems in novel situations. “Transfer is affected by the degree to which people learn with understanding rather than merely memorizing facts or following a fixed set of procedures” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000).

Performance assessments support transfer by requiring students to create a product, presentation, performance, or portfolio and to grapple with problems that have real-world relevance for them (Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2010). Assessments that require the ability to analyze and manipulate data as well as synthesize and critically evaluate ideas are more likely than traditional tests to support knowledge transfer to novel contexts (Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2010).

Performance-based assessments use a broad range of formats and activities and take into account multiple sources of evidence and measures of achievement (Darling-Hammond & Adamson, 2010; Darling-Hammond & Barron, 2008; Stecher, 2010). The George Lucas Educational Foundation advocates project-based learning, which has been shown to improve learner engagement, content retention, problem solving, and collaboration skills among upper elementary school, high school, and postsecondary school students (Parker, Lo, Yeo, Valencia, Nguyen, Abbott, Nolen, Bransford, & Vye, 2013; Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009; Walker & Leary, 2009).

Portfolios are an additional form of performance-based assessment. Through collections of student work over time, portfolios show effort, development, and achievement using multifaceted criteria, often with personal commentary or self-analysis (Stecher, 2010). Web-based portfolios can also support digital literacy while allowing students to share their work with a broader audience (Chang, 2009).

Rubrics work for a wide range of formats for demonstrating learning, and they help learners to identify areas of strength and weakness and teachers to provide focused feedback throughout the learning process. When used with self-assessment and peer-assessment strategies, rubrics can improve writing and critical-thinking skills and support engagement and academic performance in a range of subjects (Andrade, 2007; Andrade, Du, & Mycek, 2010; Andrade, Du, & Wang, 2008; Andrade & Valtcheva, 2009). To define clear criteria for completing assignments successfully, educators can use rubrics to address key questions such as the following (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005):

  • What does understanding look like?
  • What differentiates levels of understanding?
  • What does the range of performance from sophisticated to naive look like?

Understanding by Design is a popular process model for designing learning experiences that use rubrics. It begins with defining the end goal of multifaceted understanding based on six facets (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Educators can then adapt lessons to each facet and use a rubric to define specific criteria for each facet. The six facets focus on students’ ability to do the following:

  • Explain concepts, principles, and processes through justifiable accounts of phenomena, facts, and data
  • Interpret data, text, and experience through images, analogies, stories, and models
  • Apply (effectively use and adapt what they know in new and complex situations)
  • Demonstrate perspective (see the big picture and recognize different points of view)
  • Display empathy (perceive sensitively on the basis of prior direct experience)
  • Display self-knowledge (perceive personal style, projections, prejudices, and habits of mind that shape or impede understanding; are aware of what’s understood and why it can be hard to understand)

Wiggins and McTighe (2005) also recommend designing and refining rubrics based on student work that has been collected, sorted, and rated. Educators can have more-productive discussions about where students are in relation to where they need to be and what type of instruction can help students improve by developing common definitions around what it means to be good at a subject, coming up with valid assessments and attainment targets, auditing examples of students’ work, and discussing appraisals of these examples (Black, Harrison, Hodgen, Marshall, & Serret, 2010). Educators who have discussed and analyzed student work in order to agree upon valid forms of evidence for each level of understanding are much better prepared to elicit and interpret evidence of students’ understanding (Black et al., 2010).

Continue to the next section of the Comprehensive Assessment Research Review, Providing Feedback.

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