Assessment has become a toxic word in education in some places, yet assessment practices represent a critically important part of every school principal’s job.

While the word often brings to mind state-mandated standardized tests, assessment is simply a process of gathering evidence to inform education-related decisions and to advance student learning. The recent passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) encourages educators to use assessments in this way. For example, under ESSA, comprehensive literacy instruction is defined as using a variety of valid and reliable assessments to identify students’ learning needs, inform instruction, and monitor progress and the effects of instruction. In other words, the federal law now describes literacy instruction in terms of how educators incorporate assessments before, during, and after learning. 

While ESSA explicitly highlights the importance of a varied system of assessment for literacy instruction, assessment is also a key part of effective instruction across disciplines. Recent research suggests that both principals and teachers find many types of assessments useful. Yet, while more than 90 percent of teachers say they use data to adjust instructional strategies, nearly 30 percent did not feel prepared to interpret results. These findings suggest that teachers need support to consistently and effectively use assessment to improve instruction and support student learning. Principals need to provide additional training and feedback on teaching practice to support teachers’ use of assessment for learning.

Dependable Evidence 

Assessment-literate educators understand how to gather dependable evidence and how to use both the process and results productively to support student achievement by providing feedback that includes guidance to improve learning.

According to the definition developed by the National Task Force on Assessment Education, assessment-literate educators understand the importance of:

  • Beginning assessment with a clear purpose; that is, a clear sense of who will use the assessment results to inform specific instructional decision(s). 
  • Starting with clear learning target(s) to be assessed. 
  • Building and/or using high-quality assessments that can provide dependable evidence of each student’s current level of achievement.
  • Communicating results in ways that assure understanding by recipients.
  • Linking assessment and student motivation in ways that encourage all students to strive for academic success. 

Three Essential Factors

Principals can play a key role in creating productive assessment environments within schools by ensuring essential conditions are in place. 

First, principals must embrace the concept of balanced assessment systems that rely on a combination of classroom, interim, and annual assessments to provide information needed by various instructional decision-makers. 

Second, achievement expectations should be defined in terms of standards arranged in logically sequenced learning progressions within and across grade levels in a manner consistent with the way learning unfolds. 

The third essential condition is to make sure stakeholders involved in assessment selection or development are prepared to create high-quality assessment systems, as indicated by their ability to: 

  • Select a proper assessment method that fits each relevant target.
  • Gather only as much information as is needed to inform the decision to be made.
  • Create quality assessment exercises and scoring schemes.
  • Minimize relevant sources of bias that can distort results.
  • Communicate results to the intended users in a timely and understandable manner.

Finally, all stakeholders must understand when and how to engage students in the self-assessment process so they know the learning targets, where they are in relation to those learning targets, and what they need to do to achieve targets. Principals can shape the organizational and individual factors that facilitate data use by providing protocols for data interpretation, establishing a climate of collegiality, and allocating scheduled collaborative time in professional learning communities for collective use of data in schools. To ensure productive assessment environments in their schools, principals can draw on tools and strategies such as conducting a school-level self-analysis to determine the extent to which the above conditions are satisfied in their learning environments. 

Support and Monitoring 

In addition to establishing conditions for effective assessment, principals are responsible for monitoring whether teachers are enacting assessment-literate teaching practices. State programs can offer guidance for principals seeking to support teachers’ assessment literacy. For example, Michigan and Maryland have professional development initiatives focused specifically on formative assessment, both called FAME (Formative Assessment for Michigan/Maryland Educators). Formative assessment is a critical, and often informal, activity in which teachers routinely gather information about students’ progress and challenges in meeting learning targets. Then, they use this feedback to adjust instruction. 

Teachers and principals may view these simply as quality instructional practices and fail to recognize how students’ verbal and written responses are also considered “data” that can be used to make instructional decisions. Principals need to familiarize themselves with the ways in which teachers learn about quality instruction so they can help teachers see the connection between assessment processes and quality teaching practice.

Consider Warren Woods Middle School’s former principal Jennifer McFarlane. She examined the Danielson Framework—the rubric that she used to observe teachers as part of their evaluation—and the FAME professional development efforts in her school. McFarlane showed teachers who were learning about formative assessment in their FAME-focused professional learning communities how formative assessment practices related to each dimension of the Danielson Framework. 

As it turns out, there was a substantial overlap in the teaching practices that she, as a principal, would look for in her observations and the ideas teachers were learning about and implementing as part of the FAME professional development. McFarlane’s work demonstrated to teachers that their professional development was directly related to how they would be evaluated, and also showed her commitment to supporting her teachers to excel in their assessment practices. 

Because many classroom observation rubrics capture teaching practices that reflect teachers’ assessment literacy or use of assessment for learning (such as questioning and discussion techniques or teachers’ use of feedback), observations provide an opportunity to evaluate and provide regular and continuous feedback on teaching practices that require assessment literacy.

Call to Action 

Educators can most effectively use assessment for teaching and learning when the assessments are carefully designed and when teachers have sufficient time to review and reflect on evidence of student learning. Under ESSA, districts can support principals’ efforts to foster assessment-literate instructional practices. Specifically, one of the allowable uses of funds includes capacity-building in districts to assist teachers, principals, or other school leaders with selecting and implementing formative assessments, designing classroom-based assessments, and using data from such assessments to improve instruction and student academic achievement. District and school leaders should take full advantage of the opportunities under ESSA to provide the appropriate organizational context and support teachers’ use of assessment for learning. By developing sound assessment processes and skills, principals can capitalize on opportunities under ESSA to enhance student learning. 

Cara Jackson is an evaluation support specialist in the Office of Shared Accountability of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland. Amelia Wenk Gotwals is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. Beth Tarasawa is the manager for Education Research Partnerships at Northwest Evaluation Association in Portland, OR. 

Making It Work

Model Assessment Literacy 

Principals can use observation rubrics to frame their assessment of teaching practices and communicate results to teachers. Here’s how:

  • Provide clear and specific targets to be assessed. Observation rubrics contain specific targets for teaching practice; thus, by sharing these targets with teachers, principals demonstrate one of the key characteristics of assessment-literate educators. 
  • Use observations and assessment of teaching practice to help develop teachers’ skills and competencies by clearly communicating results to teachers. 
  • Present feedback in ways that foster teachers’ motivation to keep striving for success. For example, beyond providing teachers with just a score, principals should find time to provide substantive and actionable feedback to help teachers move their practice forward.