A Set of Guiding Principles 

Guiding Principle 1:

Assessments Require Clear Thinking and Effective Communication 

Those who will develop and use a high-quality assessment must share a highly refined focus. They must be clear thinkers, capable of communicating effectively both to those being assessed and to those who must understand the assessment’s results. 

Mention assessment and the first thoughts that come to mind are those of scores, numbers, and quantified indexes often attached to forms of achievement labeled very briefly, such as reading, writing, science, math, and the like. The underlying meaning of these single-word labels is rarely explicated. [Educators need to] start with some clear thinking about the meaning of academic success in their classrooms and communicate that meaning effectively with their students, parents and school board members …. Sound assessment requires clear thinking and effective communication–not merely the quantification of ill-defined achievement targets. 

While many assessments do translate levels of achievement into scores, we are coming to understand two important realities more and more clearly. First, numbers are not the only way to communicate about achievement. We can use words, pictures, illustrations, examples, and many other means to convey meaning about student achievement. Second, the symbols used as the basis of our communication about student achievement are only as meaningful and useful as the definitions of achievement that underpin them and the quality of the assessments used to produce them. 

Assessment literates are critical consumers of assessment information. They are constantly asking, precisely what is being assessed here and how do I know what the results mean? They do not rest until they achieve a sharp focus: clear thinking and effective communication, both in their own assessments and those of others.

Guiding Principle 2:

Classroom Assessment Is Key 

Teachers direct the assessments that determine what students learn and how those students feel about that learning. Yet, in most educational contexts, it is the standardized district, state, national, or even international assessment results that command all of the resources, news coverage, and political power, as though they were the only assessments that count. Nothing could be further from the truth. While these highly visible assessments do contribute to the quality of schools, they are not even in the same league as teachers’ classroom assessments in terms of their direct impact on student well being. 

Nearly all of the assessment events that take place in students’ lives happen at the behest of their teachers. The typical teacher can spend as much as one-third to one-half of his or her professional time involved in assessment-related activities (Stiggins, R. J., & N. F. Conklin (1992) In teachers hands: Investigating the practices of classroom assessment. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.) Teachers make decisions about how to interact with their students at the average rate of one every two to three minutes–and most of those have antecedents in an assessment of student achievement–asking questions and interpreting answers, watching students perform, examining homework assignments, and using tests and quizzes, among other means (Shavelson, R. J., & P. Stern (1981). Research on teachers’ pedagogical thoughts, judgments, decisions, and behavior. Review of Educational Research, 41(4), 455-498). Assessment is almost continuous in many classrooms. 

Clearly, classroom assessments are the assessments that are most available to teachers. They also are most closely aligned with day-to-day instruction and are most influential in terms of their contribution to student, teacher, and parent decision making (see Guiding Principle 3). Without question, teachers are the drivers of the assessment systems that determine the effectiveness of the schooling process. 

Guiding Principle 3:

Students Are Assessment Users 

Students are the most important users of assessment results. [They]…learn to improve because their performance is directly compared to very high–and clearly stated–standards of quality performance. They learn to understand these standards through direct interaction with their teachers, based on practice in the presence of regular ongoing feedback on their progress via classroom assessments. 

Consider the role of student as consumer of assessment results: Right from the time students arrive at school, they look to their teachers for evidence of their success. If that early evidence suggests that they are succeeding, what begins to grow in them is a sense of hopefulness and an expectation of more success in the future. This in turn fuels the motivation to try, which fuels even more success. The basis of this upward spiral is the evidence of their own achievement, which students receive from their teacher based on ongoing classroom assessments. Thus, classroom assessment information is the essential fuel that powers the learning system for students. 

However, when the evidence suggests to students that they are not succeeding in this place called school, what can also begin to grow in them is a sense of hopelessness and an expectation of more failure in the future. This can rob them of the motivation to try, which in turn can lead to more failure and a downward spiral. Here again we see consequences of classroom assessment evidence, but this time as the fuel that drives the motivation not to try. 

I do not mean to imply that all assessment results should be positive simply to keep students involved and motivated. On the contrary, if students are not meeting our high standards, our assessments must accurately reflect that fact. But if those results reflect a lack of academic success, we must act to change our instructional approach to prevent the pattern of failure from becoming chronic. We must find a different formula that brings to the student some hope of future success and we must use ongoing classroom assessments to reveal that success to our students. 

…Students use the assessment results to set expectations of themselves. Students decide how high to aim based on their sense of the probability that they will succeed. They estimate the probability of future success based on their record of past success as reflected in their prior classroom assessment experience. No single decision or combination of decisions made by any other party exerts greater influence on student success. 

Guiding Principle 4:

Clear and Appropriate Targets Are Essential 

The quality of any assessment depends first and foremost on the clarity and appropriateness of our definition of the achievement target to be assessed… We cannot assess academic achievement effectively if we do not know and understand what that valued target is. There are many different kinds of valued achievement expectations within our educational system, from mastering content knowledge to complex problem solving, from performing a flute recital to speaking Spanish to writing a strong term paper. All are important. But to assess them well, we must ask ourselves: Do we know what it means to do it well? Precisely what does it mean to succeed academically? We are ready to assess only when we can answer these questions with clarity and confidence. 

If my job is to teach students to become better writers, I had better start with a highly refined vision of what good writing looks like and a sense of how to help my students meet that standard. If my mission is to promote math problem solving proficiency, I had better be a confident, competent master of that performance domain myself. Without a sense of final destination reflected in my standards and signposts along the way against which to check the progress of my students, I will have some difficulty being an effective teacher.

Guiding Principle 5:

High-quality Assessment Is a Must 

High-quality assessment is essential in all assessment contexts. Sound assessments satisfy five specific quality standards. All assessments must meet all standards. No exceptions can be tolerated, because to violate any of them is to place student academic well-being in jeopardy… 

Clear Targets. First, sound assessments arise from and reflect clear achievement targets (as in Guiding Principle #4) You can ask this question about any assessment: Can the developer and user provide a clear and appropriate description of the specific achievement expectation(s) it is designed to reflect? If the answer is yes, proceed to the next standard. If the answer is no, realize that there is a very real danger of misassessment. As educators, we must all be confident, competent masters of the achievement targets we expect our students to master. 

…Most teachers expect their students to master content knowledge sufficiently to be able to use that knowledge productively to reason and solve problems. In addition, many teachers expect their students to develop specified skills and be able to use those skills productively to create products that meet certain standards of quality. Finally, most teachers hope their students will be predisposed to use their various academic proficiencies to meet the highest standards when presented with opportunities to do so within and beyond school. Assessment quality standard #1 asks that those who develop or select classroom assessments begin that process with a refined sense of the specific knowledge, reasoning, skill, product, and disposition expectations they hold for their students. In other words, the must understand what they are assessing. 

Focused Purpose. The standard admonishes us also to begin the design process with a clear sense of why we are conducting the assessment. It is impossible to develop a quality assessment unless and until we know how we will use the results it produces. So again, about any assessment you can ask: does the developer understand the intended uses and has the developer taken user(s’) needs into account in developing and implementing the assessment… 

Proper Method. A sound assessment examines student achievement through the use of a method that is, in fact, capable of reflecting the valued target. To test mastery of scientific knowledge, we might use a multiple-choice test. But when our challenge is to assess the ability to speak Spanish, we must turn to another method altogether. … [We] have several different kinds of assessment methods to use to reflect them. These include selected response methods (multiple choice, true/false, matching and fill-in), essay assessments, performance assessments (based on observation and judgement), and direct personal communication with students (talking with them). Our classroom assessment challenge is to know how to match the method with the intended target. About any assessment, you can ask: Is the method used here capable of accurately reflecting the kinds of outcomes the user wishes to assess? If the answer is yes, proceed to the next standard. If it is no, be aware that student achievement is about to be misassessed. 

Sound Sampling. Almost all assessments relay on a sample of all the exercises we could have included if time were unlimited and the test could be infinitely long. A sound assessment offers a representative sample that is large enough to yield confident inferences about how the respondent would have done given all possible exercises. The realities of classroom life require that we generalize from our sample to the total performance arena being assessed. Each different classroom assessment context places its own special constraints on our sampling procedures. Our challenge is to know how to adjust our sampling strategies as context varies to produce results of maximum quality a minimum cost in time and effort. About any assessment, you can ask: Have we gathered enough information of the right kind, so we can draw confident conclusions about student achievement? If the answer is yes, proceed If it is no, critical consumers of assessment information should be concerned about student well being. 

Accurate Assessment Free of Bias and Distortion. Finally, this standard demands that we design, develop, and use assessments in ways that permit us to control for all sources of bias and distortion that can cause our results to misrepresent real student achievement. Again, each assessment context presents its own unique sources of interference with accurate assessment. Each assessment method permits errors to creep in when we let our guard down. With multiple-choice tests, for example, poorly written or culturally biased test items can harm the quality of resulting scores. With performance assessments, evaluator prejudice can bias judgments. And so it is with all methods. Our challenge is to know all sources of bias and distortion that can rob assessment results of clear and appropriate meaning and to know how to head off those problems before they get a foothold. About and assessment you can ask: Have the important sources of bias been accounted for during development and use? If the answer is no, you must take or urge action to address unaccounted-for sources of error.

Violate any of these five criteria and you place students at risk. Problems arise when assessments are developed and used by those who fail to understand the valued outcome, fail to identify user needs, select and improper assessment method, sample achievement inadequately, or introduce bias. Unsound assessments can lead to misdiagnosed needs, failure to provide needed instructional support, use of inappropriate instructional approaches, counterproductive grouping of students, and misinformation provided to student and parent decision makers

Guiding Principle 6:

Understand Personal Implications 

Assessment is an interpersonal activity. This principle has two important dimensions. The first has to do with one important reality of life in classrooms: Students are people, and teachers are people too, and sometimes we like each other and sometimes we don’t. Because our assessment methods virtually always include a subjective aspect–where teacher judgment plays a role–ther is always the anger that our personal feelings about students can creep into our judgments and bias the results. Unless we are aware of the dangers of this kind of distortion and remain vigilant to the need to remain as objective as possible, we stand the risk of inaccurately assessing the achievement of our students. Judgmental assessment is perfectly acceptable as long as we control for personal sources of bias… 

Second, assessment is a very complex interpersonal activity that is virtually always accompanied by personal antecedents and personal consequences. Classroom assessments are never the dispassionate, totally objective scientific acts some make them out to be. When we allow our students to be assessed, we expose them to the possibility of academic and personal benefit and harm. In the face of assessment and evaluation, as students or as adults, we are all vulnerable. Our assessments link our students to their constantly emerging academic and personal self-concepts. They provide students with the link to their sense of control over their own well being in school. Students are more likely to feel in control when they know how to succeed and feel they can influence their own destiny ( Messick, S. (1989). Validity. In R. L. Linn (Ed.), Educational measurement (3rd ed.) (n.p.) Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall). They lose control when they either don’t understand the meaning of success or feel doomed to fail. Sound assessments can keep them feeling in control.

This means we must always strive for the highest-quality assessment, communicate results in a sensitive and private manner, and anticipate results so as to be prepared to offer specific support to students at any level whose achievement is low.

Guiding Principle 7:

Assessment as Teaching and Learning 

Assessments and instruction can be one and the same if and when we want them to be. Sometimes, it’s all right to conduct an assessment merely as a status check not linked to an immediate action. However at other times it’s a great idea to turn assessment events into powerful instructional tools. An excellent way to accomplish this is to involve students as partners in the assessment process. 

Scriven (personal communication, 1995) provides us with a sense of the different levels of student involvement in the assessment process. Starting with very superficial involvement, each level brings the student further into the actual assessment equation. Students can do the following:

·        Take the test and receive the grade

·        Be invited to offer the teacher comments on how to improve the test

·        Suggest possible assessment exercises

·        Actually develop assessment exercises

·        Assist the teacher in devising scoring criteria

·        Create the scoring criteria on their own

·        Apply scoring criteria to the evaluation of their own performance

·        Come to understand how the assessment and evaluation processes affect their own academic success

·        Come to see how their own self-assessment relates to the teacher’s assessment and to their own academic success. 

Perhaps the greatest potential value of classroom assessment is realized when we open the assessment process up and welcome students into that process a full partners. Please understand that I do not simply mean having students trade test papers or homework assignments so they can grade each other’s work. That’s strictly clerical stuff. This concept of full partnership goes far deeper. 

Students who participate in the thoughtful analysis of quality work so as to identify its critical elements or to internalize valued achievement targets become better performers. When students learn to apply those standards so thoroughly as to be able to confidently and competently evaluate their own and each other’s work, they are well down the road to becoming better performers in their own right.

1] Stiggins, R. (1997), Student-Centered Classroom Assessment. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.