Back in the 1980s, my colleague Nancy Conklin and I completed and published (1992) a 10-year ethnography of classroom assessment practices. We discovered that teachers typically spend a quarter to a third of their available professional time engaged in assessment-related activities. It is a big part of instruction! We concluded that almost all of the really important assessments that happen in a student’s school life occur at the behest of their teacher — day to day in the classroom. We also reviewed available research to find that (a) classroom assessments conducted by teachers often lacked quality, and (b) teacher training in the principles of sound assessment was practically nonexistent.
Since then, a review of the evolution of our assessment culture reveals the almost complete dominance of a blind faith that high-stakes accountability testing—local, state, national, international and interplanetary—is the way to improve schools. Little attention and limited resources have been available to promote quality assessment practices at other levels, such as day-to-day in the classroom. Yet, compelling evidence has emerged over this same time period that effective classroom assessment can have a profoundly positive impact on student achievement, narrowing achievement gaps.
Finally, this evidence is being noticed. Interest has emerged in balancing assessment systems across levels of use. Recently, I became a member of two task forces both of which have a mission to promote assessment literacy in the service of using assessment at all levels to support and to certify student learning. One team was assembled at the behest of the Oregon Education Association. In this case, for the first time in my professional life, teachers took the lead in transforming their classroom experience into a policy statement intended to promote balanced assessment and the development of assessment literacy among all stakeholders. That vision statement is now driving the development of a vision of excellence in assessment policy and practice in Oregon schools.
The second team, the National Task Force on Assessment Education, is convened by NWEA and includes representatives from virtually every organization that has a stake in the development of effective schools. This team has launched a multi-faceted, nation-wide effort to promote a deeper understanding of sound assessment practices at all levels of concern, from the classroom to the boardroom and from the living room to the legislature.
Most exciting in all of this is the clarity of the vision of excellence in assessment that has emerged and that is being endorsed. Assessment is the process of gathering evidence about student learning to inform educational decisions. Sound assessments:
- Begin with a clear sense of purpose; that is, a clear sense of who will be making what decisions based on results
- Arise from a clear and appropriate vision of the learning targets to be assessed
- Rely on high-quality assessment methods to reflect those targets
- Communicate results to the intended user in a timely and understandable form
- Link assessment to student motivation in ways that keep students striving for success
From here, a definition of assessment literacy spins out automatically. All stakeholders demonstrate assessment literacy when they understand, appreciate, and apply the above keys to success. Beyond that, practitioners (including teachers and school leaders) have attained appropriate levels of assessment literacy when they can adjust assessment practices to fit different purposes (support or certify learning), routinely rely on clear learning targets, actually gather dependable evidence of student learning, communicate results effectively to intended users, and maximize the positive motivational impact of assessments.
Without question, these are important times when it comes to the development of assessment literacy.
Rick Stiggins is the retired founder and president of the Assessment Training Institute, a professional development company whose mission is to help teachers and school leaders master principles of sound classroom assessment practice. He is a Michigan State Spartan by heritage (Ph.D. 1972) and has spent his career striving to understand the task demands of classroom assessment.