Eight Big Ideas about Assessment and Grading: Putting the Focus Back on Learning

Eight Big Ideas about Assessment and Grading

I first became aware of the power of big ideas in an educational context during an early ’90s visit with colleagues to Grant Wiggins’s Center for Learning, Assessment, and School Supervision. This was some years before the publication of Wiggins’s seminal work, cowritten with Jay McTighe, Understanding By Design. As we debriefed the session upon returning home, we had no trouble reaching consensus about our essential learning:

  • Begin your program planning with a clear vision of how your students will be different by the end of their time with you.
  • Be sure to keep a clear focus on what’s essential, to avoid getting bogged down with minutiae.
  • Recognize the limitations of relying exclusively on paper-and-pencil assessments since they rarely allow for demonstration of deep understanding, application, and transfer.

Some years later, during my time as assessment consultant to Nelson Education, I was part of the team developing a new mathematics program. While my primary role on the project was assessment consultant, I found myself constantly having to keep the mathematics experts focused on the big ideas. For example, I frequently had to ask, “Is this outcome essential?” Subject experts often have difficulty letting go of nonessential material. From their perspective, everything is essential learning. The result, of course, is to overwhelm teachers with too much stuff they feel compelled to “cover,” and to overwhelm students with too much they have to learn. I remember well the words of my son at the end of his first year of an undergraduate degree in psychology: “Dad, aren’t there any big ideas in psychology? All we ever do is memorize hundreds of facts in preparation for a series of multiple choice tests.”

When I began to write my first assessment resource for teachers—Talk About Assessment: Strategies and Tools to Improve Learning—I made two key decisions:

  1. Big ideas would provide the organizational structure.
  2. I would ask Grant Wiggins to write the foreword.

The biggest challenge I faced in writing was to determine just what are the big ideas of assessment? Clearly there is no right or wrong answer to this question. I began by examining the concept of a “big idea” per se. Ideas are “big” when they apply across a wide variety of contexts, when they endure over time, when they facilitate the understanding of many smaller ideas, when they comprise the foundation of a discipline, and when they help forge connections among a set of facts, skills, or procedures.

The eight big ideas of assessment derive from a number of sources: the ever-growing research base in assessment; my own experiences as a student, a teacher, a parent, and a consultant; and input from thousands of educators during the workshops I’ve conducted across Canada, the United States, and around the world. These same big ideas also provide the foundation for the second resource I wrote: Talk About Assessment: High School Strategies and Tools.


Big Idea #1

Assessment serves different purposes at different times; it may be used to find out what students already know and can do; it may be used to help students improve their learning; or it may be used to let students, and their parents, know how much they have learned within a prescribed period of time.

During workshops or school visits, I remind every teacher, before asking students to participate in an assessment task, to ask two questions:

  1. What is the purpose of this assessment? to inform instruction? to improve learning? or to judge the quality of what has been learned?
  2. Who is the primary user of information derived from this assessment? the teacher? students? parents? other decision-makers, such as selection committees, administrators, etc? All too often, I see assessments occurring with no clear purpose, and no clearly defined user. And when I ask, “What is the purpose of this assessment?” I frequently hear, “We always do this assessment in October.” Habits and routines do not constitute reasons for assessing student learning. If there is a common response to my question, “What is your biggest challenge as a teacher?” it is “lack of time.” That being the case, we must not spend time conducting assessments for which there is either no clear purpose and/or no clear user!

Big Idea #2

Assessment must be planned, purposeful, and accurate. Planning must ensure that assessment is aligned with curriculum, instruction, grading, and reporting.

How confidently are you able to answer the question, “What curriculum outcomes does this assessment address?” Students and parents must have confidence that teachers will only use assessments that are valid—matched to curriculum targets, meaningful, promoting learning, relevant to students’ lives and today’s world, and worthy of their time and best effort. The quality of such assessments—as well as related tools such as rubrics—increases dramatically when grade teams and course teams collaborate to plan programs. And where the small size of a school or its geographical isolation mitigates against face-to-face collaboration, solutions are available through today’s networking technology (Skype comes to mind).

Big Idea #3

Assessment must be balanced, including oral and performance as well as written tasks, and be flexible in order to improve learning for all students.

Simply put, a teacher’s assessment plan must include an appropriate balance of write, do, and say. Through the many hours I spend in classrooms, I have observed in many intermediate and secondary teachers a tendency to default to “I’ll have them write about it.” Written evidence is often necessary, but rarely sufficient to show that students have learned. Think of the driver’s test. Who would be so foolish to suggest that young drivers be fully certified solely on the basis of their multiple-choice written test of the driver’s handbook? Knowing the rules of the road represents a quite different kind of learning than being able to handle a fast-traveling vehicle in heavy traffic! This analogy represents the curriculum argument for balanced assessment. The other argument for balance concerns students who may have mastered all of the essential learning associated with a given program, but are unable to demonstrate that learning through written tasks. As Wiggins reminds us, the task of assessment involves gathering evidence “to convict students of learning.” No good detective draws conclusions based on only one piece of evidence derived from one source. So the concept of triangulation of assessment data is a critical one: Gather at least three pieces of evidence, at different times, and through different modes of expression before drawing conclusions about student learning.

Big Idea #4

Assessment and instruction are inseparable because effective assessment informs learning.

In my workshops I tell teachers, “You can’t do D.I. until you’ve done D.A.” That is to say, it’s impossible to differentiate instruction to address the differing needs of students unless you first conduct diagnostic assessment to determine what those needs are. This is such a crucial issue, I wrote my most recent book, Redefining Fair, to address it. Decades ago, Lev Vygotsky’s research into learning led him to coin the term, “zone of proximal development.” Vygotsky concluded that learning is maximized when the learner is presented with work that challenges but does not frustrate. When the gap between a learner’s current knowledge or skill and the intended learning target is too great, the task becomes frustrating and the learner typically gives up. Alternatively, when the gap between a learner’s current knowledge or skill and the intended learning target is too small, the task becomes boring and the learner also gives up. Vygotsky described the optimal gap between current knowledge or skill and intended learning target as the “zone of proximal development.” When I’m in a classroom and most students are meaningfully engaged in learning—not necessarily quietly!—it’s likely that the teacher has mastered Vygotsky’s concept and is constantly assessing on the fly, and then adjusting the gap for individuals and for groups of students. And yes, it is hard work!

Big Idea #5

For assessment to be helpful to students, it must inform them in words, not numerical scores or letter grades, what they have done well, what they have done poorly, and what they need to do next in order to improve.

Why did scoring and grading become synonymous with assessment and evaluation? Rick Stiggins and Tom Guskey have both examined the origins of the cult of measurement. For purposes of this brief article, let me simply plead with my readers to understand that numerical scores have absolutely no value to students if the purpose is to improve their learning. To know how to improve, students, like athletes on the practice field, need descriptive feedback: this is what you did well, here’s the problem area, try this next time to improve your performance. And a growing body of research in what is now commonly called “assessment for learning” is providing compelling evidence that the greatest gains in student learning are the result of just such feedback; such gains do not result from providing students with a score on every task they undertake.

Big Idea #6

Assessment is a collaborative process that is most effective when it involves self-, peer, and teacher assessment and when it helps students to be reflective learners who take ownership of their own learning.

The goal of every teacher from an assessment perspective should be to render themselves redundant! As long as students are dependent on the teacher to know how they are doing and what grade they got, they have not learned the most important lesson of assessment: to become independent monitors and adjusters of their own performance. How do students develop these skills? By having the teacher model how to assess learning and by students practicing the skills on their own work as well as the work of their peers. Students must be taught how to examine any piece of work with a critical eye. But the purpose of self- and peer assessment is to provide anecdotal feedback, not scores. Self- and peer assessment must be solely for the purpose of improvement—not for grading. The evaluation and grading of student learning is the responsibility of the teacher. In other words, I do not want any part of my child’s grade to have been determined by other students.

Big Idea #7

Performance standards are an essential component of effective assessment. In a standards-based system they must be criterion-referenced (absolute), not norm-referenced (relative).

During the early part of my career, I taught high school English. I routinely required my students to complete major assignments—usually written, I must confess!—often requiring several weeks of their time. Faced with the monumental task of marking a class set of papers, I first had to decide what I was looking for in their completed work. Then I would read the assignments of my “strongest” students, followed by the work of my “weakest” students to determine the range of performance on the particular task. On reflection, my students didn’t know ahead of time what quality work looked like—if they could guess what Mr. Cooper was looking for, they got an A! Furthermore, by using my students to establish the range of expected achievement, an A during one semester could mean something quite different from an A in other semester. And because my principal checked my grade distribution by requiring me to submit a median sheet for each class, I soon learned to bell-curve my grades, ensuring there were only a few A grades, rather more B and C grades, and relatively few D and F grades. Such approaches to grading were common when the implicit purpose of schools, particularly secondary schools, was to sift and sort students for purposes of post-secondary destinations—university, college, or workplace—that were deemed to place very different demands on graduates.

With today’s focus on high standards for all students, teachers must change their attitudes and practices in assessment and grading. Students must know the performance standards by which their work will be judged before they begin a task. Rubrics, checklists, and exemplars are some of the tools used by teachers to communicate these standards. Furthermore, these standards must be used by teams of teachers, working collaboratively whenever possible, to evaluate the quality of student products and performances. The purpose of such a system is to have ever-increasing numbers of students demonstrating proficiency on essential learning outcomes. Think again of the driver’s test: The goal is not to sift and sort drivers into categories such as excellent, average, and weak. The purpose of drivers’ education and assessment is to certify ALL drivers as proficient according to consistent, public standards. And while some drivers take longer than others to become proficient, and some candidates have to take the written or in-car test more than once, the standard is not raised or lowered to achieve a predetermined pass rate.

Big Idea #8

Grading and reporting student achievement is a responsive, human process that requires teachers to exercise their professional judgment.

You can probably predict by now that my least favorite task as a teacher was grading. Even grading experts such as Ken O’Connor hasten to remind us that grading is not necessary for teaching and learning to occur. I liken grading to accounting; it is a periodic moment to take stock. Unfortunately, all too often, it becomes the preoccupation of students, as well as their parents, especially at the secondary level. My hope is that the preceding Big Ideas have made a convincing argument for the kind of assessment that fosters improved learning for all students. The business of determining report card marks serves only as a twice- or thrice-yearly judgment about how well students are doing, relative to public standards of quality. Grading should not be simply a mathematical calculation that applies a one-size-fits-all formula to crunch the rich data reflecting many months worth of learning into a single summary statistic. It should involve the professional judgment of the teacher, especially when extenuating circumstances have caused a student to flounder. I hasten to add that “professional judgment” does not mean that every teacher uses his or her own esoteric set of standards to determine student grades. I define the term as follows:

Decisions made by educators, in light of their professional experience, with reference to public standards and guidelines.

Hence, professional judgment requires that teachers work collaboratively to agree upon the performance standards that will be applied to student work, and to engage in frequent moderated marking of such work to increase the reliability of their judgments.

But perhaps most important of all, educators, students, and parents must abandon the notion that report card grades are precise and error-free; all assessments include measurement error. And since report grades are cumulative summaries of numerous pieces of assessment data, they are prone to cumulative measurement errors! Consequently, teachers need to communicate constantly with their colleagues, with their students, and with parents, both to improve the quality and meaning of grades, and to enrich them with anecdotal commentaries and accompanying samples of students’ work.

So there you have them: eight Big Ideas of assessment and grading. While they may sound simple, commonsensical, perhaps even obvious, each one is actually complex, multi-faceted, and challenging to implement fully in the classroom. Should you wish to explore the complexity of these Big Ideas, they provide the foundation for my two resources, Talk About Assessment: Strategies and Tools to Improve Learning and Talk About Assessment: High School Strategies and Tools.

Works Cited

  • Black, Paul et al. Assessment for Learning, Putting it into Practice. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press, 2004.
  • Cooper, Damian. Talk About Assessment: Strategies and Tools to Improve  Teaching and Learning. Scarborough, ON: Nelson Education, 2007.
  • ———. Talk About Assessment: High School Strategies and Tools. Scarborough, ON: Nelson Education, 2010.
  • ———. Redefining Fair: How to Plan, Assess and Grade for Excellence in Mixed-Ability Classrooms. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree, 2011.
  • Guskey, Thomas R. “The Case Against Percentage Grades.” Educational Leadership 71.1 (September 2013): 68–72.
  • O’Connor, Ken. How to Grade for Learning. 3rd Edition. Arlington Heights, IL: Skylight, 2009.
  • Stiggins. Richard. Classroom Assessment for Student Learning. Assessment Training Institute, 2004.
  • Vygotsky, Lev S. “Interaction between Learning and Development.” In M. Cole (ed.), Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.
  • Wiggins, Grant and Jay McTighe. Understanding By Design, ASCD, 1998.