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Assessment that Sparks Learning

sparkler-839831_960_720Assessment originates from the Latin assistere meaning to assist and from assidere meaning to sit beside. In this way assessment is an intentional process that improves learning by relying on the skilled and knowledgeable guidance of others. A test is only one a type of assessment: It provides merely a partial picture of student learning. Assessment has the potential to be a catalyst for learning. In the classroom, assessment can engage learners and spark learning by making it participatory, personal, and purposeful.


Filling in a bubble sheet, even if it is on a computer screen is not engaging. When students are actively engaged in assessment they use their own words to explain the learning objectives, monitor progress by comparing their work to exemplars, and document proficiency on learning trackers. In doing so, students not only take possession of learning but also take responsibility for the outcomes. Whether Javier decides to create a poster or Mackenzie makes a video they both rely on consistent, high-quality learning intentions. For example, a rubric that includes: Reliance on 3 authenticated resources, accurate and comprehensive timeline, and inclusion of alternative perspectives on the topic. Mackenzie uses EdPuzzle to incorporate questions directly within her video on the contributions of Leonardo da Vinci. Javier asks classmates to identify steps that were out of sequence on his poster. Students can ask others to help them improve their learning through feedback and formative assessments


The aims, strategies, and evidence from standardized testing is impersonal. Personalizing assessment means building on student’s strengths, addressing challenges, and helping each one achieve their best. Personalized assessments engage and empower learners by offering opportunities for success along with scaffolds for support. Consider these ideas:

  • Students show what they know and can do in ways that are meaningful to them. When a math question asks about apples, let students decide what to count or calculate: perhaps goldfish, or jumping jacks. Then can also write questions for others to answer.
  • Provide empty outlines and let students select words from leveled vocabulary lists. For, example, Amir works on this sentence: The character says he can’t sleep because his neighborhood is 1. Caring, 2. Noisy, or 3. Peaceful. Ravella uses the same sentence but chooses from these words: 1. Compassionate, 2. Raucous, or 3. Tranquil.

When assessment is personalized, students have options for showing their learning. For historic events, they may summarize an individuals’ roles and beliefs, or illustrate important events and their significance, or write an editorial on what should/could have been done differently. Scoring is based on common standards such as depth of information, reliability of source material, and alignment with specified writing standards.


Ask a teacher why he is giving a specific assessment. Responses may explain that it is mandated by the district, selected by the team leader, came with the textbook, or one he used in the past. These are not good ideas unless they support the learning intentions and align with success criteria. Substantiate this by matching the verbs in the questions with the verbs at various levels of a learning taxonomy. If you want to stretch beyond traditional taxonomies, consider augmenting learning through the Ruben Puentedura’s SAMR model for technology integration such as shown in this table

Stretching Beyond the Taxonomy

Levels of Learning: Bloom’s Webb’s DOK, CELT, or SOLO The 4 levels of SAMR Assessment
Remembering: define and use in context, these 3 vocabulary words 1. Substitution: Technology performs the same task as before. Students complete a worksheet: Paper or electronic
Analyzing: categorize food groups or chemical elements 2. Augmentation: Technology is a tool for purposeful improvement. Students take a test that is self-correcting and gives them immediate feedback.
Evaluating: Self-assess written work against specified scoring criteria 3. Modification: Making the classroom more personalized by modifying learning through reliance on and inclusion of technology. Writing progress and process is monitored and strengthened through computer mediation and guidance.
Creating/Producing: Design an original video on a topic 4. Redefinition: Tasks that were not previously possible or actionable. Digital documentary where each student contributes to, edits, and presents the final product for an online peer review

Not long ago, I received this response from an aspiring teacher to a question about which taxonomy of learning was best. Her response was “IDM.” When asked about her cryptic answer, she explained that “it doesn’t matter.” Then went on to say that “They all have relevance and value and can all serve to deepen student learning. It just depends on your purpose and how you use them.” I encouraged her next time, to include this type of explanation in her response to the question. She added that she now understands how low-quality measures hurt learners and the many ways in which high-quality assessment can raise them up.  Students continually inspire me! Use assessment to ignite your student’s learning.

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It Could Be Better


Take a moment to think about your worst test. For me it was macroeconomics. Unable to understand concepts such as GDP Deflator and Quantity Equation, I memorized parts of the text and got accused of plagiarism. Fortunately, it was an understanding professor who explained why I might like microeconomics better. His feedback included relevant advice for achieving my goals. And I was grateful!

For many students, the word test conjures up feelings of fear and images of failure. Especially for those whose COMT* gene predisposes them to stress. Assessment, on the other hand, is intended to reduce stress, emphasize progress, engage learners, and improve outcomes.

What do you think would  be the better way to assess student understanding? A multiple-choice test on content knowledge or an assessment of ability to apply learning. Consider these two questions:

  1. What percent of individuals have the COMT gene version that predisposes them to stress?
    11% 24%                   3. 47%                   4. 73%
  2. If you know that many students become highly stressed by tests and measures, explain, two steps you will take to reduce those stress levels? Explain each step in 2 to 4 sentences.

Most educators choose 2 as the better option. What are your thoughts?

Intentional Assessment
When assessment is restored to its original intent-meaning to assist and guide by being close at hand- students are less fretful and more willing to give it their best effort. Assessment acknowledges the social and emotional underpinnings of learning. When viewed in this light, the focus changes from tests that exclude some learners to assessment that supports all learners. Intentional assessment is purposeful, engaging, and focused on progress. Adjusting the lens from standardized testing to responsive assessment means students know the learning intentions and success criteria, track their own progress, and resolve lingering misperceptions.

Balanced and Restorative Assessment
Assessment is balanced and restorative when it is inclusive of all learners. Ask any teacher to point out their superstars and they can readily identify their top achievers. But what about Alef who is struggling to learn math yet always willing to revise his work as well as share his meager lunch with a kind word and smile. Or Bettina, who completes her homework with accuracy and precision, when she doesn’t have to watch her three younger siblings while her mom works two jobs. These students may not have the highest numerical averages, but they work hard and demonstrate the social and emotional outlook and skills for success. Consider Regina, who knew little English at the beginning of the school year, is still reading 2 levels below grade level, but understands that progress is most important for her success. In these ways assessment is inclusive of all learners while providing access to each learner.

All students can be successful. It depends on the lens we view them through. Consider how you assess and report student success. Do you take a close-up view, primarily data-driven, sometimes producing walls of data and report cards that mystify even the most measurement savvy parents? Or do you take a bigger-picture view that supports students as assessors and values growth over final scores? We have tons of data, but the lingering question is how it is used to benefit students, classrooms, and schools.

Consider steps you will take to move the meter from the left to the right side of this chart. There is space in each section to record your thoughts, recommendations, and action plans.


Fixed learning sequences                                                                    Flexible sequences

Prearranged schedules for learning                                           Adjustable scheduling

Pre-determined learning objectives                          Personalized learning intentions

Learning is segmented by content                                                    Integrated learning

Teacher known learning outcomes                 Student developed learning outcomes

Frequent mandated tests                                                                       Multiple methods

Reporting of final scores                                                  Revealing growth and mastery


Symmetry and Purpose
Restoring balance in assessment doesn’t mean seesawing from side to side. Rather it means seeking ways to move teaching, learning, and assessment practices towards the right side of the chart. It means moving the fulcrum in service of the best types and outcomes of assessment, and in doing so meeting the needs of all learners while making the best use of sound assessment practices.

Students are most successful when there are varied and variable measures across a spectrum of learning outcomes, assessments are infused throughout teaching and learning, and a continuous pulse of learning is taken. In this way, responses can be designed to meet the needs of all learners. For Sumina who is creative, illustrating her understanding of chemical reactions comes easier than remembering where to find tungsten on the periodic table, while Rilez, who has memorized the periodic table, needs help making sense of it.

Please don’t misunderstand my intention or interpret this as a one-sided position. Rather take it as advocacy, guidance, and encouragement for finding balance in assessment.  Consider your students, the types of assessment given to them, and how learning outcomes are reported. Flip thinking from external testing mandates to local needs; from narrow data analysis to broadband assessments; and from summative measures to progress towards mastery. In this way assessment will be restored to its intended purpose.

ESSA provide opportunities for setting achievement goals, developing rating systems, and looking beyond test scores. At the same time, each state’s and district’s practices must ensure equity, balance, and fairness for all students. Locally, this means visible dashboards rather than summative school scores, support rather than sanctions, and planning rather than penalties. This works for all schools, classrooms, and students.


*Learn more about COMT gene, test worriers, and test worriers at by Po Bronson and Ashley Merriman

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Chapter 1: Reverting to Purpose

Assessment and testing have different meanings. A test is a tool for measuring. Number 1 could mean your golf handicap or your score out of a possible 10. Assessment extends beyond simply pointing out right and wrong answers. It is intended to illuminate learning, engage students, and guide improvement. Assessment is at its best when it:

  1. Synchronizes and sustains intentional and purposeful learning outcomes.
  2. Monitors progress throughout teaching and learning.
  3. Provides multiple pathways for students to demonstrate competency.
  4. Informs teachers and students of next steps towards closing gaps and improving understanding.

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ASSESSMENT FUN and GAMES: Part 2: The first edition of this blog was popular at the start of the school year: Spot the Fake, Cross the Line, and Recipes. As the school year progresses here are three more assessments to engage students.
FUN* = Focused, Useful, eNgaging


Student-Designed Wanted Posters: Hunt for the antagonist using evidence and examples from the reading to explain his or her faults, describe character traits, and critique decisions and actions. This can be done individually or in small groups and is best when it includes a self-assessment checklist that aligns with learning intentions.

ALTERNATIVE: Students Create Help Wanted Posters: Individually or in small groups students create help wanted ads that describe the traits and attributes of one of the character’s in the narrative, historical event, etc.

Individually or in small groups student’s name the character that best matches the qualities in the ad. For example: Courageous, kind, and clever or Absent-minded, enthusiastic, and loyal. They defend their position using the character’s words, thoughts, and actions and can use additional facts or evidence from source materials. This works best when there are multiple characters in the story.



Student constructs a pizza image made up of 6 to 8 slices, each explaining their most notable or significant learnings. Alternatively, they identify one leading concept on each of the slices and then elaborate using toppings.

In science, Mr. Alamara labels the slices to align with a lesson on sources of energy (solar, coal, etc). Students annotate the slices with a description of the source, pros and cons, etc. In History, Ms. Marcus uses the pizza to summarize major time periods by identifying self-contained events such as hot peppers to identify specific wars and also to connect ongoing trends such as innovation using flowing cheese. Of course, graphic designs and real pizza can increase engagement.



For a lesson where there are opposing viewpoints: Individually students can summarize the diverse perspectives and fact-check questionable data, while building critical thinking skills. Applicable to a range of topics such as school uniforms or climate change.  Consider using ProCon as a resource.

In addition, students can brainstorm and catalog ideas on how people develop to these diverse viewpoints.

Coming Next Q and A Mix-up, Team Trivia, ET News

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Restorative justice dates back to the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi (@1700 B.C.) where it was believed that any crime harmed the whole community. In nursing, it refers to a healing process where the treatment is responsive to an identified need. Restorative assessment holds promise in education, especially for learners who may stumble through conventional measures. Assessment becomes restorative when it re-engages learners, restores confidence, and encourages progress, one resolute step at a time.

Restorative practice in school fosters a positive climate and empowers students as owners of learning. It is remarkably effective and especially essential for students who struggle to learn, are frustrated in school, and ultimately face failure.

Restorative assessments interrupt that sequence. It shifts the focus from assessments that indicate deficiencies to ones that illuminate strengths. With appropriate routines all types of learners, from the disengaged to the divergent can make progress towards mastery. Restorative assessment includes these essential elements.

  1. Reciprocal means that learning intentions are visible to both the student and the teacher. Expectations are clear and exemplars are available. Transparency, authenticity, accountability and dialogue offer a safety net. When anyone stumbles, be it the teacher, student, or learning partners, interventions and resolutions are prompt and focused.
  1. Responsive assessment relies on multiple types of evidence of student learning. It responds to strengths and challenges with just-right adjustments to practice, pacing, and depth. This formative approach, embedded throughout teaching and learning, incorporates feedback that is timely, specific, and actionable.
  1. Inclusive considers the needs of all learners and supports students as goal-setters and planners. It is fair and unbiased. Relevant learning intentions and reasonable challenge is supported by transparency, flexibility and enriching guidance.
  1. Restorative assessment starts with the learner and continually monitors their progress. It relies on multiple assessment methods throughout the taxonomies of learning. From knowing to producing, students rely on their strengths and overcome setbacks through reflection and self-assessment.

We live in a world of soundbites, but assessment cannot be restored simply with platitudes. Synthesizing what is proven about best practice improves learning outcomes for all students. This doesn’t require an extreme makeover, rather it relies on purposeful practice, complementary pathways, and balanced approaches and that engage the whole community and gets everyone on the ramp to success.

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FUN: Focused, Useful, eNgaging

Is the FUN missing in your assessments? Tests may not provoke joy in your students, but these strategies can make assessment more user-friendly than traditional measures. These active assessments are informative, engaging, responsive, support student ownership, and of course, align with learning intentions.

Choose the real news item from the list and defend your selection: This can be used as a pre-assessment, review of learning, or a concluding assessment. Alternatively students can correct fake news items. Even better, have students write fake news for others to evaluate and revise.

In Ms. Lo-Kuman’s health class, students generated these headlines for analysis.
1. Vitamin Cigarettes will add years to your life
2. Dihydrogen Monoxide can control your weight
3. Robassia is now selling specially grown dandelions to boost your immune system.

If you see something online and there’s a person’s picture with it, it must be true. Abraham Lincoln
After learning (nutrition, insects, planets, weather, historic events, literature, etc.), students stand on a straight line. They move to one side or the other in response to questions such as:left-or-right-910122_960_720Are you more like calcium or iron, a bee or ladybug, Mercury or Neptune, a hurricane or landslide, Martin Luther King or Ruby Bridges, Sherlock or Watson? Using what they learned, they explain their position. Alternatively, they can collaborate with others on the same side and collectively describe their thinking.

Create recipes for literary characters or historical figures- Each student writes one, other students guess, then explain and evaluate.
3 cups of friendship, zero common sense
1 teaspoon piquant sauce and a dash of self-determination

COMING NEXT: Wanted Poster, Pizza Wisdom, Two Sides of the Mirror, Q and A Summary, Team Trivia,


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group-work-454882_960_720Holistic, similar to the word whole, means to develop comprehensive and coherent mental representations of learning. Rather than simply completing a selected-choice test, it means recognizing the schema of learning.

Holistic assessments are multidimensional in that they include varied facets of learning from recall of vocabulary to production of new ideas. Holistic assessments unify multiple learning outcomes into an integrated picture of student learning. What good does it do to know that the patient is bleeding without understanding anatomical pressure points? Why do we ask students to sequence the battles of war but not ask what would happen if the battles and their outcomes were altered?

To make assessment more holistic, consider ways you can turn traditional tests into multifaceted assessments: From knowing facts to understanding relationships and from labeling details to questioning evidence. Holistic strategies include well-thought-out projects, structured action research, and production of artifacts, each aligned with grade-level learning intentions. For example, a student may prepare a presentation of types of clouds, compare weather data at different elevations, or analyze research on climate change. When accompanied by self, peer, and teacher assessment, using rubrics along with more traditional measures, a full picture of the outcomes of learning becomes evident.

Benefits include:
Stronger links between learning intentions and learning actions

Clearer insights into student learning
Better guidance on modifications and interventions
Integration of assessment within teaching and learning
increased student ownership and engagement in learning and assessment

*Holistic and Wholistic both mean that the parts of something are interconnected and interdependent. They may be used interchangeably with medicine typically referring to treatment of the whole person and philosophy referring to a composite holistic belief system. One source adds to the confusion by saying that although the words have distinct meanings, they have similar definitions. Go Figure

**Atomic Assessment deconstructs standards into separate and distinct elements, then measures each of the elements. For example, in a unit on atoms student may show knowledge and understanding by defining electrons and explaining Dalton’s atomic theory, but go to deeper such as considering the pros and cons of harnessing nuclear energy.

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