Productive Assessment Systems Are in Balance

By Rick Stiggins

Assessment is the process of gathering evidence of student achievement to inform educational decisions. The list of truly important instructional decision makers who want and need to be informed by assessment results is long and the array of decisions they face is complex. Local school district assessment systems are in balance when they meet the information needs of all key users. Let’s consider three foundations of balanced assessment.

Foundation #1 is a clear and differentiated sense of purpose

Assessments serve formative purposes when they support student confidence and learning success; that is, when they become part of the cause of learning, not merely the measure of it. They serve summative purposes when they are used to certify student learning success. Both purposes are important, but they are different. Formative assessments want to point the learner toward greater success and confidence that success is within reach if they strive for it. Summative assessments bank on a sense of accountability to promote and verify learning success. Again, both are important and so deserve our careful attention.

Local district assessment systems are in balance when they serve both purposes effectively.  Each and every assessment event, whether intended for use day-to-day in the classroom, periodically across classrooms, or annually in the boardroom, must arise from a clear sense of purpose; that is, the assessor must understand in advance who will use the results to inform what educational decision(s).


Register to see Rick Stiggins in person this summer at the
Dylan Wiliam Center Formative Assessment National Conference.
Reserve your spot today.


Foundation #2 is assessment quality

Whether intended to serve important formative or summative purposes, an assessment can be productive only if it yields dependable evidence of student leaning. Users must develop or select high-quality assessments. This means they must bring to the table a sufficiently well-developed foundation of assessment literacy to ensure quality. More specifically, they must be prepared to select a proper assessment method given the learning target to be assessed, design an efficient sampling frame, develop high-quality exercises and scoring schemes, and minimize bias in their assessment. Those who are unable to effectively manage these keys to assessment quality place students directly in harm’s way due to the mis-measurement of their achievement and the inappropriate instructional decision making that will result. In other words, a poor quality formative assessment is likely to do far more harm than good to student learning success.

Foundation #3 is the student’s role in the assessment

Historically, we have seen assessment as something adults do to students. We teach, assess, and grade, and on the summative side of balance, that has been appropriate. However, recent breakthroughs on the formative side bring profound and immensely promising changes to the student’s role. We have learned that students can become critically important data-based decision makers in their own right. By bringing learners into the process of monitoring their own growth, we can create emotional dynamics that keep them believing in themselves and encourage them to take responsibility for their ultimate success. In this kind of “assessment FOR learning” environment, achievement skyrockets.

To learn more about the foundational strategies outlined above and delve deeper into the many discussions around formative assessment as a whole, join me in Baltimore, MD, this summer at the Formative Assessment National Conference.

In addition to my keynote presentation, I’m excited to join fellow formative assessment colleagues Dylan Wiliam, Susan Brookhart, and Jay McTighe, as we chart the future of assessment practices.

It happens July 30—August 1, 2018 and more details can be found here.

Rick Stiggins is a 1968 graduate of SUNY Plattsburgh, holds a master’s degree from Springfield College, and a PhD from Michigan State in educational measurement. After serving on the faculty of education at the University of Minnesota, he also acted as director of test development at the ACT® and on the senior research staff of the Northwest Regional Lab in Portland, OR. Rick founded the Assessment Training Institute (ATI) in 1992 to fulfill the mission of providing teachers and school leaders with the assessment literacy they need to fulfill their rapidly evolving assessment responsibilities. Rick has authored dozens of articles, books, and training programs, all of which promote the sound assessment practices from the classroom to the boardroom. For three decades, Rick and the ATI team have developed and refined innovative approaches to helping practitioners assess accurately and use the classroom assessment process productively to support, not merely monitor, student learning. The ATI learning team approach to in-service assessment training has been used productively across the U.S., Canada, and around the world.