Three Levels of Assessment

Questions to Ask at Each

In the previous Blog, I attempted to go inside the classroom and look at using assessment practices that promote student learning—assessment for learning.

I’d like to take a step back and look at the balanced assessment system, this time at the three levels of assessment, the information about student learning we can glean from each level, and at how we can best use the information from each level.

Educators make all kinds of important decisions based on the information they get from a variety of assessments—decisions related to instruction, placement, program evaluation, resource allocation, policy, program development, accountability, teacher evaluation, student evaluation, funding, . . .

Furthermore, educators and other stakeholders make important decisions at each of the three levels of assessment.

The development of an effective balanced assessment system, therefore, requires the analysis and inclusion of the full range of assessment users and uses at each of these three levels of assessment.

In order to design, develop, and implement an effective assessment system, one that includes all three levels of assessment, it is critical that we start by asking and answering three fundamental questions at each level of assessment (Stiggins, 2008):

  1. What are the instructional decisions to be made based on this assessment information?
  2. Who will be making those decisions?
  3. What information will help them make good decisions?

The answers to each of these questions will differ significantly across the levels. In order to create and implement an effective assessment system, it’s important to understand these differences.

The Classroom Level of Assessment Use

The classroom is the primary location of student learning. What conditions need to be in place to maximize this learning?

Fundamental to effective instruction and to successful learning is the learning progression, a transparent “map” of what students are expected to learn and of the standards-base path towards successful learning.

To know what comes next in both instruction and learning, then, we need to know exactly where a student is now.

Assessment can play a central role in helping teachers and students know exactly where a student is along this learning progression and what comes next in both instruction and learning.

In the classroom, the focus is on the individual student. It’s not about who’s learning the standards. It’s about how each student is doing and specifically where he or she is along that path to academic success.

Answering Three Questions: Classroom Level (Stiggins, 2008)

  1. What are the instructional decisions to be made based on this assessment information?
    • Answer: What comes next in the learning
  2. Who will be making those decisions?
    • Answer: Students, teachers, and parents
  3. What information will help them make good decisions?
    • Answer: On-going evident of where students are in their learning


The Program Level of Assessment Use

In order to gather information for making decisions at the program level, educators rely on a variety of interim, benchmark, and common assessments administered periodically. The primary purposes of these summative assessments are to identify

The focus of assessment at this level is on the mastery of specific content standards. Assessment users typically want to identify struggling students so that program and instructional resources can be adjusted to better meet the identified students’ learning needs.

Answering Three Questions: Program Level (Stiggins, 2008)

  1. What are the instructional decisions to be made based on this assessment information?
    • Answer: What standards are students mastering or not mastering
  2. Who will be making those decisions?
    • Answer: Teachers, teacher leaders, principals, and curriculum staff
  3. What information will help them make good decisions?
    • Answer: Periodic evidence aggregated across content areas, classrooms, and grades identifying the standards met and those unmet

The Institutional Level of Assessment Use

At this level, assessments are summative and directed towards accountability.  In fact, federal law mandates that states, districts, and schools assess students on an annual basis at specific grade levels and in specific content areas.

The purpose of these annual assessments are to 1) show the proportion of students mastering set standards and 2) evaluate the institutional impact on student learning.

Answering Three Questions: Institutional Level (Stiggins, 2008)

  1. What are the instructional decisions to be made based on this assessment information?
    • Answer: Are students meeting required standards?
  2. Who will be making those decisions?
    • Answer: Superintendents, school boards, state departments of education, legislators
  3. What information will help them make good decisions?
    • Answer: Annual summaries of standards met via accountability tests

Paying Attention to the Differences in Assessment-Level Information and Use

Clearly, there are fundamental differences in the information needed across these three levels of assessment and in the users and uses of this information. The following table sums up these differences:

Assessment Level Users & Use
The Classroom Level
  • Helps students understand how best to approach learning
  • Helps students better understand their own learning
  • Helps teachers keep track of what comes next in learning for each student
  • Helps teachers figure out how to enhance student learning
  • Provides teachers with information they can give to students about what their classroom learning
  • Helps teachers evaluate student learning progress
The Program Level
  • Provides educators and teams of educators with information that enables them to examine and evaluate their own effectiveness as educators
  • Provides educators and teams of educators with information about the relative effectiveness of a variety of programmatic and instructional interventions designed to help students meet learning targets and master content standards
The Institutional Level
  • Provides state departments of education, superintendents, principals, parents, and community stakeholders with information that can be used to assess and evaluate the effectiveness of leadership, instructional policy, resource allocation, . . .


References

Stiggins, R. (2008). Assessment Manifesto: A Call for the Development of Balanced Assessment Systems. Portland, OR: ETS Assessment Training Institute.

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