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The Benefits of a Balanced, Comprehensive Assessment SystemWhen people think of assessments in education, they often do so without thinking holistically. They think of an end-of-year summative assessment (a final exam or a state test). Or, perhaps they think of interim assessment given at different intervals through the year to measure growth. Teachers might focus on formative assessment tools and practices that help them understand in the moment how well their students are grasping the information. But in reality all assessments in education play an important role in illuminating student understanding and performance. Formative assessment guides learning; summative assessment certifies learning; and interim assessment guides and tracks learning; benchmark assessments help predict outcomes; and, diagnostic assessments help surface areas where students need help. There are multiple measures that can, and should be used to make informed instructional decisions and the need for a smart balance of data gathering.

The assessment process generating this information can improve student learning and monitor progress toward equitable outcomes for different groups of students. Its function is to shed light on student learning, as well as education programs, policies, and practices with the intent to improve them. Information gained from assessment can protect the vulnerable; promote innovation; and address social inequities.

Although assessment is often seen as a tool to measure the progress of individual students, it also allows individuals, communities, and countries to track the quality of schools and educational systems. (Braun, Henry; Kanjee, Anil; Bettinger, Eric; Kremer, Michael. (2006) Improving Education through Assessment, Innovation, and Evaluation. American Academy of Arts and Sciences)

Of course, fulfilling this role requires a balanced approach to assessments in education, and finding this balance begins with developing a coherent assessment plan. Like nesting Russian dolls, assessment plans exist within assessment plans. Teachers will develop assessment plans for their classes to ensure that the instructional process is working. These classroom-based plans exist within the school’s assessment plan, which exists within the district’s assessment plan, which exists within the state’s assessment system.

School systems administer multiple assessments to answer different questions and meet state and federal mandates. These systems should be as efficient as possible, and here again, interim assessment can play a crucial role. A well-constructed interim assessment, with a stable scale and deep item pool that can adapt for students who are on, above, and below grade level, can fulfill multiple purposes within a comprehensive system.

  • For students, interim data can help them work with teachers to set learning goals and monitor progress toward their completion.
  • For teachers, interim data can provide an objective measure of student achievement, demonstrate growth, point to instructional opportunities, and inform differentiation strategies.
  • For administrators, interim data can show trends for grade levels, schools, and classrooms. Data can be used to evaluate the efficacy of programs and inform evaluation rubrics, inform projections of performance on state accountability tests, and demonstrate the effectiveness at efforts toward closing achievement gaps.

Undeniably, developing a comprehensive assessment system is hard work. Fortunately, there are tools and procedures expressly designed to facilitate this work. But tools don’t replace sound professional judgment: they support it. Developing a coherent and balanced assessment system calls for vision, leadership, collaboration, communication, and open-mindedness to change.

Internal versus external reporting requirements, internal needs, as well as formative, interim, and summative purposes (along with benchmark and diagnostic assessments where appropriate) help frame the effort. Focusing unwaveringly on students and what will best help them keeps the work grounded in what matters most.

There is no such thing as a perfect assessment system, but one founded on a theory of action that incorporates multiple measures with the clearest signals, provides opportunities for relevant feedback, and has credibility and defensibility (Gong, Brian. (2011) Reidy Interactive Lecture Series’ Multiple Measures: a personal response. Presented at the Reidy Interactive Lecture Series; Boston, MA) will go a long way toward maximizing data so that students are supported as they progress on their unique learning paths.