Evidence that suggests principals’ knowledge and skills in relation to assessment leadership—such as incorporating professional development, use of assessment data in classroom planning, and nurturing professional collaboration on matters of student achievement and instruction—are of fundamental importance to building assessment literacy among their teachers.

While tests are often the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “assessment,” a balanced assessment system encompasses a wide range of methods for evaluating a child’s academic, social, and emotional abilities. Broadly defined, assessment is the process of gathering evidence of student learning to inform decision-making. 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 what instructional decision
  • Starting with clear and specific learning targets
  • Building high-quality assessments that fit the intended context and provide dependable evidence
  • 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

Fine-Tuning Assessment Practices

But what do assessment-literate habits actually look like? We offer seven research-supported assessment practices that support classroom learning:

1. Use purpose-driven assessments. Assessment can be used for a variety of purposes, including informing instructional strategies or quantifying students’ knowledge at a given point in time. However, regardless of the purpose, assessments should be linked to specific educational decision-making. For example, formative assessment is used to gather evidence of learning so that teachers can adapt instruction moment to moment. In contrast, summative assessments are designed to measure whether a student has learned specific content.

2. Clarify learning targets. Students have a better chance of success when teachers make the learning targets clear. Ideally, these expectations are presented in student-friendly language coupled with examples of exemplary student work. Students thus become empowered to use feedback from assessments to understand where they are now, where they want to be, how to close that gap, and how to do better in the future. Principals can support this process by asking teachers questions such as: What are the preset standards that students are expected to learn? Are the standards sequenced in learning progressions? Can each standard be deconstructed and scaffolded so it connects to other standards? Do tasks and assignments reflect targets the students have had an opportunity to learn?

3. Use everyday data in new ways. Across disciplines, teachers continually collect and respond to evidence of student learning in a variety of ways. For instance, the ideas of “noticing” in mathematics and “ambitious science teaching” in science focus on critical aspects of formative assessment, such as eliciting students’ ideas and using them to frame instruction. It is important to recognize how students’ verbal and written responses also are assessments that can be used to make instructional decisions.

4. Integrate assessment and teaching. Assessment-literate teachers use assessment results to adjust instructional strategies. Teachers use data in multiple ways, including to identify student strengths and weaknesses, to determine approaches to remediation or reteaching, to pace lessons, to identify curricular topics, and to differentiate or make grouping decisions. There is growing emphasis on supporting teachers to integrate assessment in order to inform instrumental actions, such as setting goals, determining what content to teach and how to teach it, determining what strategies to use for instruction, gathering more information to support learning, and celebrating successes. Principals can support teachers’ positive beliefs about the value of the data, familiarity with the subject matter being assessed, and motivation to engage in and interpret data—all of which are associated with the increased likelihood of using assessment data to improve instruction.

5. Join forces with colleagues. Encourage teachers to collaborate on student achievement and jointly plan instruction in response to assessment data. As principal, you must build a culture in which data and practice are shared across schools. For example, professional learning communities (PLCs) offer a designated space for meaningful discussion about assessment and other student learning data. Common assessments enable teachers to compare results and share promising instructional approaches that foster student learning.

For instance, Shawna Gilmore and Burton Melancon, eighth-grade science teachers at Lincoln Middle School in Rio Rancho, NM, describe their building’s approach: “It benefits our students most if we collaborate on assessments and planning,” say Gilmore and Melancon. “What this ensures is that all of our students are receiving access to the same educational opportunities. After several years of working together, we are able to refine our practices and streamline our learning tasks to make sure they meet learning objectives. Using common assessments allows us to compare student achievement across the grade level.

“We reflect together on student learning and opportunities for improvement, as well as identifying concepts that need to be clarified or retaught,” they note. “This year, we are focusing on clear learning targets with clear rubrics that are a part of our standards-based grading process. We are now sharing our lesson plans and materials with other schools through shared district folders, district meetings, and emails.”

6. Communicate with students and families. Assessments are valuable to students because the evaluations can demonstrate what students know, showcase their progress over time, and help students set goals. In addition, assessment results can enable teachers to have informed conversations with students, parents, and guardians. Encourage teachers to talk about assessment with parents and guardians. (Student-led conferences offer an important opportunity to include family members in the learning process.) Talking about the purpose of assessment, a student’s learning progress, and academic and nonacademic strengths and areas for growth can provide family members with critical knowledge so they can better support learning at school and home.

“Teachers, families, and students rely on consistent discussions about assessment data in order to build strong relationships,” says Christine Pitts, a Title I reading interventionalist at Bethel School District in Eugene, OR. “As a reading specialist in a K–8 school serving families that face daily systemic barriers, I find that assessment data is a pivotal link when developing trust with families and setting the ultimate goal of supporting their children’s learning and social and emotional development. Administrators who develop their staff’s fluency with an integrated assessment system will empower their teachers to use assessment data as a critical tool for building trust with families and empower families to partner with their teachers, presenting their culture and interpretations as an asset toward the broader goal of developing students’ academic, social, and emotional abilities.”

7. Recognize that context matters. District and school-building conditions can support or constrain assessment-literate practices. Organizational factors that impact data use include:

  • A school climate of collegiality and trust
  • Professional development and coaching of assessment-literate practices
  • Institutional expectations and norms for assessment data use
  • Availability of computerized information management systems and tools
  • Protocols to structure teachers’ discussions of assessment data

Promoting a Culture of Empowerment

Principals should promote a culture in which assessment empowers teachers. Supporting an environment in which assessment is integral to teaching and learning helps teachers access data in a timely fashion and allows both students and teachers to understand the results. Educators know they will be effective when they have the ongoing support and professional development to use assessment results to modify teaching in ways that support student learning, providing greater opportunities for student growth and success. This information stems from understanding the purpose of assessments, defining learning targets for students, using the results to guide instruction, and clearly communicating assessment results with students and parents.

Among practitioners, policymakers, and researchers, there is an emerging consensus that ongoing professional learning is critically important to improvement. Within schools, principals are in a unique position to influence teachers’ development and, therefore, are critical drivers of student learning. But knowing that principals are often overloaded with administrative tasks, we believe it is important to identify highly efficient and effective ways they can foster assessment literacy in their staff. Equipped with research-driven approaches to assessment, we hope to shift the focus away from the rhetoric of punitive testing back to how quality assessments can produce accurate and timely information to maximize student learning.

Beth Tarasawa is director of the Research Collaborative for Student Growth at NWEA in Portland, OR. Amelia Wenk Gotwals is associate professor of science education in the department of teacher education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, MI. Cara Jackson is an evaluation specialist in the Office of Shared Accountability in the Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, MD.