Using Classroom Assessment to Improve Teaching

— The Center for Comprehensive School Reform and Improvement
Updated on Jul 9, 2010

Assessment can be one of the most difficult aspects of teaching. The educational, emotional, and formative ramifications of judging a young person’s work can weigh heavily on the mind of a teacher. But in spite of the anxiety it poses, knowing how to assess students in order to improve instruction is a core principle of effective teaching.

One cause for assessment anxiety is confusion about what assessment means and about its purpose. In the minds of many community members and parents, assessment means test—especially a high-stakes state test. For students, assessment often is perceived as a means of competing with classmates for the highest grade instead of as a mile marker on the journey to increased knowledge and understanding.

All assessments are created to serve some purpose, whether to diagnose a learning disability, to identify a student who needs remediation, or to determine whether a school district has met its achievement goals. However, no one assessment serves all of these purposes well. Standardized, summative assessments—those high-stakes tests—are designed to provide information on the performance of districts and schools so resources and support can be well targeted. But for classroom teachers, that information is incomplete. The results might tell teachers which students in their classes have not mastered a reading comprehension objective, but they do not tell what kind of instruction those students need to master the objective or what errors in thinking led to the incorrect answers. To get that kind of information, teachers need the results provided by the consistent use of classroom-based formative assessments.

This month’s newsletter explains why ongoing, high-quality classroom assessments are so important and provides some suggestions for how they can be developed and used.

Why Classroom Assessment Matters

Collecting data on student understanding is an essential step in moving students toward full understanding of important concepts and standards. “Instruction and formative assessment are indivisible,” say authors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam (1998, p. 143). “Assessment… refer[s] to all those activities undertaken by teachers—and by their students in assessing themselves—that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities…. [It is] formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs” (p. 140). The researchers found that strengthening formative assessments can raise student achievement overall and be especially helpful to low-achieving students (Black & Wiliam, 1998).

Rick Stiggins, a national expert on classroom assessment, reflects a similar perspective. He suggests that educators replace their assessment of learning with a more balanced approach, using not only assessment of learning but also assessment for learning. That is, teachers should use assessment not only to actively and continuously measure a learner’s progress but also to acquire useful data to inform their own instructional practice (Stiggins, 2004).

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