Deep Dive: Assessment

"What we choose to assess is what will end up being the focus of classroom instruction" (Gordon Commission, 2013, p. 9). 


Research Findings

Schools have several mandated assessments based on state and local policies. However, the day to day work of teachers requires an ongoing cycle of assessment and instructional adjustments to meet the needs of individual students. Summative assessment, formative assessment, assessment for learning, data-driven instruction…no matter the name, the goal is the same: to assess where students are at a given moment in time, and to determine what they need to be successful. The literature investigating assessment has reached several conclusions in common about best practices in assessment. A summary of common ideas from this body of knowledge is presented here. Look to the references list if you are interested in reading any of the sources for this section which can be found here.

Standardized Testing in the United States: Roots and Resurgence

Here are some key events in the history of testing in the U.S. For a brief overview of this history with added details click here.

  • 1845: The status quo in Boston schools was challenged as a result of the work of reformers Horace Mann and Samuel Gridley Howe. For the first time, school evaluators administered a written test to all students in the schools (previously evaluations were based on the recitations of knowledge by top students).

  • Late 1800s/early 1900s: The rise of statistical analysis, and the desire of psychology to be elevated to a science led to the development of standardized tests to diagnose learning problems. These tests eventually made their way into schools as a tool to judge teacher effectiveness. During this time intelligence was seen as a fixed trait that could be objectively measured.

  • 2001 Signing of the No Child Left Behind Act: This was a bi-partisan measure with stated goals of reducing the achievement gap between wealthier and poorer school districts. This was to be done by requiring schools to administer a statewide standardized test each year, with consequences for schools who did not make adequate progress. The tests were “high stakes,” meaning that performance was linked to consequences for schools. NCLB elevated and cemented the tests’ placement in schools as they became a federal mandate. Standardized tests still hold a place in U. S. schools today.

This is a very brief history of some key events that explain how standardized testing became a part of schooling in the United States. This is in no way meant to be a comprehensive discussion of this issue (that could be an entire website on its own). These  event highlights are meant to give some context for testing's place in education today, as well as how it served as a catalyst for change toward more student-centered practices.

(Au, 2011; Giordano, 2007; Parkerson & Parkerson, 2017; Reese, 2013; Shepard, 2000)

Teacher and Student Roles in Assessment

Teacher Role:

  • Creates clear rubrics

  • Models self-assessment and evaluation

  • Collaborates with students on setting goals and revising work

  • Gives choice in how students demonstrate learning

  • Provides clear, timely, actionable, and supportive feedback

  • Provides explicit learning targets

  • Uses data to guide instruction to meet individual needs, making changes to teaching practices if necessary

  • Create positive culture to support this type of assessment


Student Role:

  • Take ownership of learning through reflection and self-analysis

  • Persevere through challenges, take risks

  • Create and revise work to meet learning targets using rubrics, teacher and peer feedback, and self assessment strategies

  • Actively participate in student-led conferences

  • Collaborate with others to set personalized learning goals, track and communicate about their progress, identify next steps

(Baas et al., 2014; Berger et al., 2014; Hardiman & Whitman, 2014; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018; Shepard, 2015; Stosich & Jaquith, 2018; Vega, 2015)

Current Research: Assessment should...

  • Be more than just a recall of facts.

  • Be aligned with a call for deeper learning.

  • Assess higher order thinking skills.

  • Include performance tasks.

  • Not have a singular focus.

  • Shape learning.

  • Consist of multiple measures.

  • Be linked to standards and learning progressions, with clear criteria for mastery.

  • Be an on-going, dynamic process that takes place throughout the school year.

  • Be integrated with learning, not be separate from it.

  • Consist of shared power between the student and teachers.

  • Involve student ownership.

  • Not just come at the "end" of learning.

  • Include multiple formative assessments that are aligned with summative assessments.

(Berger, Rugen, & Woodfin, 2014; Darling-Hammond, Wilhoit,& Pittenger, 2014; Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, 2013; Jaquith & Stosich, 2018; Levy, 2015; Shepard, 2000; Shepard, Penuel, & Pelligrino, 2018)

Focus on Formative

Formative assessment involves procedures during the learning process that are used to inform instructional practices based on student needs--assessment for learning. Research suggests that formative assessment leads to achievement gains, increased student equity, attention and retention of learning, and improved quality of student work (Berger et al., 2014; Organization for Economic Cooperative and Development, OECD, 2000; Vega, 2015). Bennett (2011) and Briggs et al. (2011) call for more research into the effects of formative assessment. Traits of effective formative assessment have been outlined and are listed here:

  • Feedback is essential. Learners need feedback that is timely, on-going, specific, and supportive, and will help them to identify their next steps.

  • Formative assessment should take place in a classroom culture that values risk-taking, revision, and respect.

  • Instruction should be adjusted based on these assessments.

  • Formative assessment should be closely aligned with learning targets; formative assessments will provide evidence of students' progress toward meeting them.

  • Teacher autonomy to make instructional decisions is required for formative assessment to be impactful; professional learning will support teacher capacity to effectively use formative assessment. 

  • Student voice and ownership of formative assessment is necessary, and explicit instruction in self-assessment, evaluation, goal-setting, and revision leads to more student capacity to do this.

  • Formative assessment is integrated within instruction, not separate from it.

(Baas et al., 2018; Berger et al., 2014; Curry et al., 2016; Jaquith & Stosich, 2018; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018; OECD, 2005; Richman, 2015; Vega, 2015)

Assessment in Project-Based Learning

Assessment in project-based learning (PBL) is student engaged and authentic, and it goes beyond basic recall of facts. It is integrated within projects, not separate from them. Just as students are learning as they engage in the project, educators are assessing the students and determining their learning needs as the project goes on.


In order for this to happen teachers need to be very clear about the learning objectives for their students within a project. Student voice and choice is elevated, but this does not mean the teacher steps back and is not involved in the learning that happens. PBL is an instructional strategy, and as such, important content and skills must be identified so that students are clear about where it is they are headed.


Students do take charge of their learning and make decisions about how to proceed, but they are also aware of learning targets. Teachers scaffold learning and put structures in place to assist students as they become aware of where they stand in terms of meeting the targets and what else needs to be done. This happens through a recursive cycle of revision and feedback until the final product is completed. The students lead the way through their performance, showing teachers what needs to happen next. Formative assessment--assessment for learning--is a key component of assessment in PBL.


Project-based learning requires changes in how teachers teach and how schools are run; assessing student learning in what might be a new way is part of this move away from traditional practices. The final section on this page is meant to support teachers in this process.

How does all of this happen?

How can I use this type of student-engaged assessment in my classroom?

How can I plan for assessments during a project?

How can I track and record my students' progress?

What about grades?

Authentic assessment, rubrics, feedback, formative, summative…what does all of that mean?

Where do I begin?

The module you will find in the next section, Strategies in the Classroom, takes a deeper look into these issues of assessment. There you will find practical strategies and tools to support educators in their journey toward more student-centered learning and assessment.

There are also other assessment resources on this site.

  • If you would like an overview of assessment in PBL, videos explaining assessment in PBL, and links to some resources, click here.

  • If you would like to review summaries of books with assessment in PBL/student-engaged assessment as a focus, click on an image below or visit the Book Talks page on this site.

Transforming Schools.JPG
Project-based Teaching.JPG

Strategies for Assessment in the Classroom: What and Why

"Decades of using assessment as a neutral observer of inequity – measuring and monitoring achievement gaps – has done little to actually create more equitable learning environments" (Assessment for Learning Project, ALP, 2019).

Assessment in project-based learning (PBL) is not the traditional cycle of learning and then testing at the end of a unit. Depth is emphasized over breadth. Assessment occurs throughout a project, and therefore formative assessment is essential.

Assessment in PBL cannot be scripted, as it is a process that responds to students as they are engaging in learning. Instead, it is a system with various parts and processes that teachers use to determine, with students, their current level of understanding, as well as what the next steps must be to support continued growth. This is a shift in thinking: Assessment is not something done to students, it is done with and by students. Students are aware of learning objectives, set goals, and take responsibility for evaluating their own progress

This video, while meant to be an introduction to the book Learning that Lasts, serves as a good explanation as to why it is important to give students ownership of their learning, and the tools to assess that learning.


Internationally, students in high-achieving countries are involved in these types of assessment practices to support deeper learning. Linda Darling-Hammond discusses this in this video.

The graphics below, from the Assessment for Learning Project, provide a model for this type of assessment. Clicking the images will take you their website.

aurora inst graphic.png
ALP graphic.png

Strategies for Assessment in the Classroom: How

"Assessment is too often treated as an event rather than a process" (ALP, 2019).


The modules below represent different tools and strategies that make up an assessment system in PBL. However, these tools need not only be used in PBL; the modules also provide a framework for assessment in a learner-centered classroom. Click one of the topics below to support your implementation of learner-centered assessment.

Two Pens on Notebook