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Balanced Assessment Systems

Balance seeks that sweet-spot between rigorous testing structures and purposeful strategies that inform teachers and learners. It strives for equilibrium between traditional measures and assessments that display higher, deeper, and applied thinking. It values immediate insights into learning while continuously monitoring progress towards worthy outcomes.

An effective system realizes the importance of connecting assessment purposes with learning outcomes through a continuous cycle of planning, proceeding, and reviewing. This type of system is comprehensive and informative at many levels.

The value of a balanced, comprehensive, and rigorous assessment system lies in meeting the needs of all constituents. It is based on purposeful strategies, multiple measures, and informed responses that guide all learners towards reaching their potential.

The promise of balanced assessment systems is achievable. Focusing our work on growth and improvement is a goal worthy of our efforts. Through this we can bring stability back to the true purpose of assessment: Those activities that involve gathering and analyzing information about performance that is used for the improvement of teaching and learning.foundations4

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Déjà Vu All Over Again

“Our society and its educational institutions seem to have lost sight of the basic purposes of schooling. This is hardly surprising, given the multitude of often conflicting demands we have placed on our Nation’s schools”  A Nation at Risk – 1983

If you have been around the education sector a while you probably noticed that what is trending are simply makeovers from the past.

Horace Mann in the 1800s advocated for civic responsibility and character education. Now we call it bullying prevention and restorative justice.

John Dewey in the early 1900s advocated for hands-on experiences: Get involved, try out your ideas, learn by doing. Now we call it project-based learning. (note that Maria Montessori built her practices on this. Jerome Bruner called it Discovery Learning which led to Constructivism.)


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What’s Trending in Assessment


  1. Rely on Multiple Measures: Develop and expand an array of strategies for measuring essential skills and knowledge.
  2. Emphasize Realistic use of Differentiation and Personalization: While it is not feasible to write 25 different lesson plans, there are powerful ways to personalize learning and assessment.
  3. Move Beyond Data: Numerical analysis of test scores provides part of a picture of student learning. Aim for more nuanced data collection and better evidence of higher level thinking and application of complex skills.
  4. Select Technology for a Purpose: Choose and blend technology with intentional teaching and assessment.
  5. Change the Formula for Success: From performance on a test to competency-based assessment that includes support for students in producing their finest work.
  6. Future Readiness: Expand foundations of learning with more opportunities for applying, creating, collaborating, and owning learning.
  7. Support Teachers: Continue to strengthen teachers as assessors through quality pre-service preparation and targeted in-service support.
  8. Use the Research: Rely on high quality research while avoiding flashy sales pitches.
  9. Monitor: Use the lesson of history to inform legislative decisions that will genuinely improve educational outcomes.
  10. Increase Engagement: Include teachers, parents, and communities in the design, planning, implementation, reporting, and utilization of assessment.

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Student-Centered Assessment

The learning sciences continue to inform us of how students learn and this in turn guides how we teach them. When these ideas are applied to student-centered assessment a broad-spectrum blueprint emerges.

First, is the idea that a balanced and comprehensive approach to assessment will benefit all learners. In this type of system multiple methods are valued. A spectrum of strategies is routinely used, from in-the-moment classroom assessment to large-scale national and international measures. Secondly, a comprehensive system means that assessment is informative in multiple ways: Immediately in the classroom, locally at the school and district level, as well as for state and national policymakers.

Student centered assessment includes these features:

  • A balanced continuum from formative to summative
  • Evidence comes from a range of strategies from traditional tests to alternative measures
  • Assessments guide and inform next steps in teaching and learning
  • Growth measures are emphasized
  • Assessment is mastery-based rather than time-bound
  • Students take ownership of their learning and use assessment for improvement
  • Students are actively engaged in assessing
  • Motivational strategies are part of assessment (i.e. choice, low anxiety practices)
  • Input from multiple assessors; teacher, self, and peer is valued
  • Emphasizes real-world applications of learning
  • Technology is used purposefully to support and enrich assessment
  • Outcomes are informative and usable by a variety of audiences
  • Interpretations and decisions are supported by the learning sciences

From students to school leaders and from district to global perspectives, no single assessment can provide all the necessary information needed about learners and learning. Only a balanced and comprehensive assessment system can truly be student centered. In this system the focus is on learning, broad in content, reasonable in delivery, sound in design, and equitable for all learners.

More information on these ideas is available from Students at the Center, especially their reports on a New Era in Educational Assessment by David Conley and Assessing Learning by Heidi Andrade, Kristen Huff, and Georgia Brooke.


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Using Assessment to Boost Learning (Part 2)

Higher and Deeper Thinking, Episodic Learning, Brain-Friendly Strategies

Classroom formative assessments that are routinely embedded during learning assist students as they recall and rehearse new knowledge, understanding, and skills. As Henry Roedinger III and Jeff Karpicke explain, there are numerous low-stakes strategies that support their research on the value of continuous review, practice, retrieval, and application of learning.

Deeper questioning and higher level thinking
Choose strategies that elicit and interpret evidence of learning at multiple levels of Blooms Taxonomy and Webb’s DOK. Rather than recalling what the Hungry Caterpillar ate or identifying which foods were unhealthy, ask students to prescribe a healthy diet for the caterpillar. Instead of asking about the meaning of vocabulary words, ask students to support an idea or position using the vocabulary words. In place of asking how political parties are alike and different reflect on how those differences influence their legislative decisions.


Episodic Learning
This works for any content from grouping numbers to analysis of Hamlet. Rather than 30 minutes of sustained learning, intersperse moments of recall using a prop or concept map to briefly summarize a strategy or character trait.
A Stop-to-Jot strategy transfers attention from the reading or viewing. A Learning Tracker is a more structured form of the stop-to-jot in that students respond to a specific prompt at a selected point of learning.
Collectively, learning can be reviewed and understanding checked through a visible posting such as on Padlet. As with eating rich food, smaller portions are more easily digested.

Brain-Friendly Strategies
Take regular breaks during learning, even if it is simply to get up and count steps around the table, name the countries around the world, or a model with kinetic sand.
Quick Checks such as a written summary or “Tell it to Martian” require students to recall and show new learning.
Distributed learning using Lino lets students post digital sticky notes, making it easy to summarize learning and respond to misunderstandings.

When students repeatedly retrieve and apply their learning they become better caretakers of their own learning. This in turn supports engagement and deeper learning. Research from the learning sciences show that these ideas work.

Try It Out: Select two ideas from what you have just read and explain two ways you will use what you learned. Write a summary of 140 words that you can post on Twitter.

See previous blog USING ASSESSMENT TO BOOST LEARNING, Part 1, for more ideas.

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Using Assessment to Boost Learning (Part 1)

Check-ins and Applications

Standardized testing is typically done to generate data on student learning, to rate students, and to evaluate schools and teachers. Yet, it is not solely teaching and testing that strengthens learning. Henry Roedinger III explains that testing alone does not help to embed learning, but the retrieval and application of learning does. In addition, Jeff Karpicke’s research at Purdue shows that frequent recall of learning in an applied context makes learning last for the long-term.


Frequent Check-ins
Retrieval Cues
Cues that assist in recall serve to strengthen memory. A good idea is to stop often during learning to build those connections. This can be accomplished using prompts such as a mnemonic device, a graphic image, a brief musical passage, or a movement that connects to the learning. Check for understanding with checklists and self-assessment as students use these strategies.

Check-ins with Technology
Zaption makes it possible to embed questions directly into a video. Using the Zaption upgrade or your school’s learning management system, student responses can be quickly reviewed for accuracy of retrieval and evidence of understanding.
With ActivelyLearn a teacher can respond directly to a student’s understanding of a reading passage. Socrative and Quia generate quick quizzes that support frequent retrieval.

Applications of Learning
Formative assessment engages students as active learners. It is hard not to learn when you are expected to explain your thinking, respond to a prompt, engage in a corners activity where you support a position, or contribute to a Q and A mix-up where students write and hold onto their question cards but their answers cards are distributed and re-matched. Tracking progress towards goals by solving a problem, citing examples, or developing a portfolio of work is engaging, affirming, and indicative of progress and gaps.

When students are owners of their learning, they continually reflect on their learning, check progress towards success criteria, and plan next steps.

Try It Out: Select two ideas from what you have just read and explain two ways you will use what you learned. What advice would you give to someone who hasn’t read it?

Find more ideas in next blog: Higher and Deeper Thinking, Episodic Learning, and Brain Friendly Strategies

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