Effective Assessment Practices: Tools that Lead to Learning

As long as there have been schools, teachers have been in the business of assessing student work. Do we have a common working definition of assessment for today? Why and how do we do this? Is there value for us and for the students in this activity? What does assessment look like in a professional learning community (PLC)? It seems imperative that what we believe about the purpose, value, and goals of assessment should be reflected in our policies and professional practices. It is also important that our assessment tools are imbedded within, and are an integral part of the larger context of curriculum development and pedagogy. These three key components should support each other in promoting a love for learning, in us and in our students. If our desire is to extend our PLCs into PLNs (professional learning networks), it will be important for us to share some common understandings around this important topic!

In order for this article to be useful, I’ve tried to refrain from letting this descend into little more than a reiteration of our school’s assessment policy, and instead, frame it with points for discussion and questions around a summary of practices. It may be interesting to use these questions as conversation starters on your next professional development day.

What’s the Current Definition of Assessment?

According to the directives of the Ontario Ministry of Education, assessment is “the process of gathering information that accurately reflects how well a student is achieving the curriculum expectations in a subject or course” (Growing Success 2010). Assessment, by this definition, becomes a valuing activity. Hopefully we have structured our courses so that what we value, what we expect, is front and centre. We more easily hit those targets that are in our sights, and so we need to be overt about learning goals, success criteria, and the essential or driving questions in our units and in our courses. This is especially true of the worldview concepts which are foundational for course or unit development.

Questions: Is there anything particularly Christian about our practices in assessment? Do our assessment strategies shine a spotlight on what we value in our courses, and at our school?

Why Do We Assess?

“The primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning” (Growing Success 2010). If this is true, then our motivation for incorporating assessment tools should extend far beyond our desire to calculate a mark or assign a grade. We want students to love learning, and to experience self-motivated exploration that is not driven by, or focused on, grades alone. We desire that our students will become lifelong learners. We also desire that they will love the Lord, ask hard questions, delve deeply into the Christian narrative, and see their place within this story.

Questions: Although grade-based motivation might work, we need to ask ourselves what happens to the desire to learn when the “carrot” of grades is gone. If we ask our students to set goals in our courses, do they tell us a “number” that they want, or are we equipping them to articulate what it is they really want to learn? What aspects of our school’s mission and vision are we actively assessing and which are we not assessing? Why?

How Do We Assess?

We are encouraged to use assessment tools in a three-pronged approach: Assessment for learning (for diagnostic and goal-setting purposes), assessment as learning (meaningful feedback that informs, guides, and motivates the learning), and assessment of learning (opportunity for students to demonstrate learning in a variety of ways; may involve an authentic audience in the form of a POL [presentation of learning] or EOL [exhibition of event]). Assessment is also “criterion referenced,” meaning that students are not competing against one another for top rank, but all seeking to compare their work to a standard set of achievement expectations.

Questions: In this environment, although not probable, it’s possible that everyone gets 100 percent! How do I feel about this? Do students ever get 100 percent in our courses? Do we provide diagnostic, goal-setting, and feedback types of assessment (not just “numbers”) on a regular basis? Do we provide students with an authentic audience for their work? Is our assessment work part of our pedagogical plan? Do our assessment tools complement learning goals?

Is There Value for Us and for Our Students in Assessment?

There had better be! We spend a lot of time inside (and outside) of school on this activity. Assessment for, as, and of learning should be integral to the curriculum design process. The use of reflective protocols as feedback tools for students and for teachers, for example, enhances our ability to ask better critically constructive questions, probe a bit deeper, and push forward in more intentional ways. (For more info on protocols see the Buck Institute: <www.bie.com>.)

Questions: Christian schools should be places where Christian teachers teach Christian concepts in Christian ways. Do our practices in assessment help our students learn in particularly Christian ways? Do our practices succeed in improving student learning? Do our assessment practices facilitate better pedagogy and curriculum development from us as teachers?

The Larger Context

Let me share with you my larger context.  I work at a Christian high school with approximately thirty staff and three hundred students. Our working environment is framed in terms of a Professional Learning Community (PLC), where teachers are encouraged to work collaboratively, not just collegially, in departments and in course development. Our educational goal is to Enfold, Engage and Equip students for lives of Christian faith and service. We believe that the development and nurturing of a positive school culture is an essential foundation for pursuing this goal. We are utilizing worldview “through-lines” to provide common language to express course themes. This allows staff and students to contextualize themes within the larger biblical narrative, while unpacking meaningful connections within and between courses.

We are also using Project Based Learning (PBL) as one of our tools for achieving our school’s educational goals. The goal of our smaller PLCs is to maintain consistency within departments and between multiple sections of a course in three key areas (overall Expectations, Essential or driving questions, and Evaluation, or assessment practices). Teachers are encouraged to work out the details of our school assessment policy within these PLCs using their professional judgment, with support from program administration.

The assessment process includes students and parents as partners in the goal-setting and feedback process, in consultation with guidance, administration, and our school’s academic and English language learners support programs. Report cards include written comments, feedback on six learning skills, and calculated grades, which are based on a student’s most recent and most consistent work. Because of this, we encourage regular feedback on student progress, but do not insist on weekly calculation of mark-based grades. Cumulative activities involve presentations, art installations, performance pieces, portfolios, and final exams. We hosted our first formal exhibition of learning (EOL) last June, and are looking forward to incorporating presentations of learning (POL) opportunities throughout this school year.


The process of refining and redefining assessment practices is a career-long journey. Has our staff worked through all of the questions articulated here? Of course not, but we are continuing the conversation! Although we’ve been working with many of our assessment strategies for several years, we continue to revisit this topic through regular professional development days and “best practice” sessions at our staff meetings. This provides opportunity for our staff to continue working towards consistency and cohesion in course development and assessment. We are continually looking for empowering ways to move forward that will enrich the teacher-student relationship, as well as the learning process. We will always have marking to do, but the hope is that good assessment policies and practices will allow teachers the freedom, not to assess more, but to assess better (to quote Damian Cooper). It is our hope and prayer that schools can work together as professional learning networks committed to developing and sharing assessment practices that lead to lifelong learning.