What is Assessment Literacy?

“Assessment illiterates do not understand how to produce high-quality achievement data and do not evaluate critically the data they use.”


Richard Stiggins, whose been a educational leader in assessment research wrote that in 1995. He has spent over two decades combatting years of “assessment training neglect for teachers and administrators.” He coined the phrase ‘assessment literacy’ and urges us to use assessments in meaningful ways. A huge focus of his is assessment ‘for’ students rather than ‘of’ students.

When it comes to assessment literacy, there is so much to consider:

  • What exactly are you assessing? A product? A performance? Mastery of a standardized skill?
  • Does your assessment line up with what you’re teaching? This does’t mean teaching to the test, but does the scope and sequence of what students are learning align with your assessment?
  • Have you included your students in creating criteria for their assessments? Do you use rubrics? How much are teacher generated? How much are student generated?
  • How do you communicate these assessments to students? To parents? To other teachers? Do you do this through portfolios? Report Cards? Conferences?
  • What information are you getting from a standardized test? How are you using that information? Is this information used for student improvement? School improvement? Teacher improvement?
  • What does it mean to be 2 standard deviations above the mean? How valid is the assessment?

I’ve only just scratched the surface, but you can begin to see how complicated assessment for student learning can be. I used to consider myself literate in assessments knowing that it was something that would continue to evolve and require me to learn more about it. That is until now.

My students used to be given a standardized test in the fall of each year and we’d get results back in the winter. We could analyze the results, look for trends and gaps in the school as well as confirm any gaps there may be in student learning, and try to address them. While this isn’t bad, Stiggins noted that instructional decisions based on an assessment that happens once a year does not have the greatest impact on student learning. And what about the students? Were they being given this information as a tool to set new learning targets?

So this year, when our school decided to move to a computer adapted assessment that would be issued at least three times a year, I got excited. Not only would the assessment take less than 30 minutes (the old format took about 6 hours over the course of a week), but we’d get data back immediately. Unfortunately, my excitement has turned to frustration. Mostly because I can’t make heads or tails out of the data. I feel like I’ve become assessment illiterate, but I know that it’s not true.

If I’m going to give my students an assessment at least 3 times a year, I want to know how it aligns with our curriculum and what action my grade-level team can take immediately. Over the course of the year, sure we can use the data as we had previously, but in that case, why would we subject our students to it multiple times in a year. Saying that it gives kids a chance to practice filling in bubbles to prepare them for future standardized tests is an argument I never bought. It is clear that isn’t the case now as they presently ‘click’ their selection.

This time of year, we always engage the children in an author study unit. How great it would be if we could use data to fine-tune this unit and communicate this to our students. I’ll leave you with another Stiggins quote. This one from a more recent article (2009).

“Let me be clear about my mission here. The arguments I advance do not arise from a desire to end accountability- oriented standardized testing. Such tests do provide op- portunities for educators to reflect on what is and is not being achieved. If educators don’t take advantage of these opportunities, it is not the fault of the tests. I will suggest specific ways for users to take far greater advantage of standardized tests in the future. But for assessment to become truly useful, politicians, school leaders, and society in general must come to understand the gross insufficiency of these tests as a basis for assessment for school improvement. “



2 thoughts on “What is Assessment Literacy?

  1. Thank you for posting this! While we can all read about assessment and its problems day and night, it’s a breath of fresh air to see an actual teacher’s thoughts on the very possible benefits and the very clear problems with assessment as we often see it in our classrooms. It seems so easy to see how this testing could be beneficial if the results came back quickly, if we understood what the numbers meant, if we were able to connect the assessment to our actual course content…

    Do you feel that teachers have enough input on assessment within their schools? How can we advocate for more input and more individualization of assessment in our community schools?

  2. Thanks for your comments. In the schools I’ve worked at, teachers usually have a lot of input on assessment at the classroom level, and hopefully that translates to students having input as well. On a school-wide level for standardized tests, teachers do not have very much influence, unfortunately.

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