Assessment OF Learning vs. Assessment FOR Learning

I’ve never understood why PPS does not have a closer alliance with the Portland-based Assessment Training Institute (ATI). Its founder, assessment expert/guru Rick Stiggins, is one of my heroes.

Stiggins and his colleagues at ATI frame the question of assessment by distinguishing between assessment FOR leaning vs. assessment OF learning. In the former, assessment informs and improves learning; in the latter, assessment determines learning, i.e. creates the conditions for the curriculum becoming test prep.

Assessment OF learning is about proving that you have learned something that can be measured. Assessment FOR learning is about using information produced by rich forms of assessment to enhance instruction and improve learning.

As you might guess, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) promotes assessment OF learning. And some would say that its obsession with quantitative measures makes any kind of assessment FOR learning difficult.

But even in using more valuable kinds of assessment, e.g., classroom-based formative assessment, there’s a tension between assessment for learning and assessment of learning for documentation and accountability purposes. In other words, it’s hard to care about students when you’re so busy writing down observable performance data about them that ties into State Standards CA42.A1, SS16.B12, and M27.J4. Learning vs. proving you have learned are two different objectives. In the former, both the student and the teacher may actually care about the outcome. And they may care less whether it can be quantified and recorded. It’s hard to empirically validate an “a-ha” moment, yet good teachers in caring relationships with their students have them all the time.

Proving I have learned, i.e., showing I’m a good student, and proving I have taught, i.e., showing I’m a good teacher, are euphemistic covers for “please don’t fail me” and “please don’t fire me” respectively. Under NCLB, even really good assessment practices, when operating under the weight of “accountability,” can become about covering one’s derriere. Inevitably, and quite logically, students may focus only on those things they can demonstrate they know and that they are good at. Teachers may focus only on those things they can demonstrate they can teach with predictable, positive outcomes. Neither can afford to show process or ambiguity, and certainly neither wants to show a lack of knowledge or competence or even – heaven forbid – that they are wrong about something.

So what effect might this have on quality, substantive, in-depth teaching and learning? It’s not hard to imagine.

Peter Campbell is a parent, educator, and activist, who served in a volunteer role for four years as the Missouri State Coordinator for FairTest before moving to Portland. He has taught multiple subjects and grade levels for over 20 years. He blogs at Transform Education.