Assessment OF Learning vs. Assessment FOR Learning

7:20 am

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.

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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.

filed under: No Child Left Behind, Standardized Testing

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10 Responses

  1. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Peter, thanks for your post. I always enjoy and am interested in what you have to say. I took a look at the Rick Stiggins Manifesto on Assessment. While it is obviously the case that you need to assess (I say “take a look at”) how kids are doing to see where you need to go as a teacher (what the kids still needs to work on) and not just test at the end of units or whatever, I can’t buy Stiggins’s arguments based on research. I have yet to come across genuine research in education which is any good. The problem with these educational gurus is that they seem to believe in educational research and want to premise their arguments on it.

    Just look at this Stiggins quote: “When assessment for learning practices like these play out as a matter of routine in classrooms, as mentioned
    previously, evidence gathered from dozens of studies
    conducted around the world consistently reveals a half
    to a full standard deviation gain in student achievement
    attributable to the careful management of the classroom
    assessment process, with the largest gains accruing for
    struggling learners. (Black and Wiliam, 1998; Hattie and
    Timperley, 2007).”

    So, what is “a matter of routine”? How is that measured?
    What is “a careful management of the classroom assessment process” mean? How is that measured? “dozens of studies conducted around the world” Were the studies any good? I have yet to see a good one (with all the main variables removed and with genuine control groups), so why would these be meaningful?
    “Student achievement”, oh you mean standardized testing, not educational classroom achievement. Will this help my kids score higher on their tests? Sounds like it. But if the tests are so flawed as a part of a real education why should I care?

    Do you see my problem? Here is a good idea — assess as you go along so that you see how your kids are doing. Anyone should be able to understand that this helps their teaching. And in fact catergorizing assessments to help a teacher to make sure they are assessing as they go, instead of just testing at the end is fine. But educators today have to go whole hog into suggesting that research shows them the answers instead of common sense and that implementing huge systematic trends is the way to go and the only pedagogical avenue to follow. This doesn’t help. It confuses, moves education from where it should be and creates a sort of psuedo science which we might as well call “educationalism”. Not much of a step above creationism.

  2. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Steve B. – I largely agree with what you’re saying about educational research. It never ceases to amaze me that there’s still – STILL – a hot debate in edu research circles RE: class size. The central question is: “Does class size REALLY make a difference, and does it REALLY affect the quality of teaching and learning?” Anyone who has ever spent more than 5 minutes teaching a class will tell you the obvious answer: hell yes class size matters! Teaching 15 kids is lot easier than teaching 30 kids. Duh. And, because it’s easier, teachers can be more effective.

    But back to Stiggins: I recommend you read the book that he and his ATI colleagues wrote called Classroom Assessment for Student Learning: Doing It Right, Using It Well. It’s very practical. I think the manifesto he wrote is geared towards the edu wonk crowd. For a more teacher-oriented piece, check this essay out from Educational Leadership. Let me know what you think.

  3. Comment from Terry:

    One correction: NCLB promotes assessment of ACHIEVEMENT, not learning. Learning and achievement are by no means synonymous. NCLB, and the district, define achievement quite narrowly by test scores in reading and math.

    That’s not learning.

    I’m also a huge fan of Rick Stiggins, and even attended a daylong seminar in Corvallis on Authentic Assessment. And Stiggins wrote an op-ed piece for the O a few years back highly critical of testing mania.

    I blogged about it a post called Stiggins to the Rescue.

  4. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Good point, Terry. Nice to know you’re a fan of Rick’s, too!

  5. Comment from Rick Stiggins:

    To Steve Buel:

    Have you read the research we cite? HOw do you idict, indeed reject, it if youy have not. the scholar cited are world respected leaders in educational measurment at Kings College, London and University of Auckland in NZ. Their research reviews (of multiple high-quality studies) are publised in refereed international journals and are universally acknowledged to be of high quality. If you are qualified to evaluate such things, read the reviews and you will see that this is the case.

    For a deeper understanding of our suggestions for how teachers can assure (a) the accuracy of their day classroom assessments and (b) their use assessment to promote (not merely monitor) student learning follow your colleague’s suggestion and take a look at our materials. Then let us know your criticisms.


  6. Comment from Peter Campbell:

    Rick – Steve B. is a classroom teacher. I think that he, like a lot of teachers, is frustrated with the chasm between educational research and educational practice.
    “Research-based” practices have been hijacked by Reading First, the findings of the National Reading Panel, and NCLB, which push phonics-heavy, scripted approaches to reading despite reams of evidence that such practices are not in the best interests of children. Teachers are right to be suspicious of these claims.
    That said, teachers need to be able to make judgments about what works for their students. What I appreciate about ATI’s approach is the focus on how assessment affects the student: “(W)e must recognize that assessment is about far more than the test score’s dependability—it also must be about the score’s effect on the learner. Even the most valid and reliable assessment cannot be regarded as high quality if it causes a student to give up.” (source)
    What I also appreciate is how practical ATI’s approach is in having assessment inform instruction. The examples listed in the above link don’t require a PhD in psychometrics to know that these are effective practices.

  7. Comment from Terry:

    It’s great to see you pop up on this site, Rick Stiggins.

    In fact, I wish you and others– Allen Olson of the Northwest Evaluation Association, for example, who used to work for the Hillsboro School District– would take a more public and activist stance in denouncing the misuse of standardized testing in the school accountability movement.

    I think you could be immensely helpful in persuading the Portland School School Board to adopt a resolution voicing its opposition to NCLB and the use of test scores to rate the performance of schools.

    Allen Olson said this of NCLB in testimony delivered in March of 2007:

    As NCLB has been implemented, it has become increasingly obvious that the way student achievement is measured currently does not begin to tell us whether the school is doing a good job or a poor job teaching the students that come through its doors.”

  8. Comment from Steve Buel:

    Mr. Stiggins, thank you for your comments. I read your review and conclusions of these studies and my comments were directed at that. I am not overly impressed that leaders in educational measurement think the studies are solid. To begin with, are they not all generalized toward indefined “educational achievement”? I don’t quibble with your findings so much as with the way you arrive at justifying them. I actually look at the problem in reverse. I say you can’t get decent control groups for educational research which rises to the accepted levels of scientific research. I will probably read the studies, but it would make more sense if you could tell me the procedures you used to get accurate control groups which rise to this level. Now if you wish to use word’s such as correlative and survey. And use these terms to justify the conclusions instead of the more stringent word, “research” then we probably could come to an understanding that the studies had some meaning.

    In the meantime, I come down on the side of a good friend, a brilliant man, who was the head archivist at a major, very well-respected university who said he never saw an educational study which stood up to scrutiny in the 14 years he headed up the archives. And the people doing the studies were very well respected professors in the field of education.

    Just look at this little problem. Suppose you do a study on classroom seating charts. Seems reasonable. Here are the ways children are seated, here are the educational results. Set up your control groups anyway you want. elinminate the detractors anyway you want. Seems pretty plausible and fairly straight forward. But here is the catch. If you are talking about 30 children in five rows of six children each and limit yourself to the placement of children within just this one seating arrangement then the number of arrangements that are possible is probably more than the number of grains of sands on the earth. And this is just one of the, I would imagine, trillions of possible arrangements in a classroom. So how accurate can your study truly be?

    Frankly, I would rather talk to an experienced teacher who might be able to give me some guidelines on seating arrangements for various different types of classrooms anyway. Probably more usable in the long run.

    I did note, by the way, that you never answered the questions I asked in my post.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I like your stuff. But attacking me, not what I say, and using supposed “research” as the major justification for your positions puts you in the same place as other educational theorists who make the same singular mistake and strew forth this opinion and that opinion with the air of invincibility that modern science commands. Even though their studies don’t rise to the test.

    Your turn.

  9. Comment from Rick Stiggins:


    If you reject the premise that educational research can lead us to improved instructional practice, then I would be wasting my time and yours trying to convince you that the studies synthesized are of high quality and lead us to very productive assessment ideas. So let me try a different approach. Give Bruce Herzog up in Nooksak Valley WA a call and talk with him about the practicalities of assessment FOR learning. He has been applying these strategies for a few years now. Ask him about their impact on student learning and his sense of self-efficacy as a teacher. You can reach him at 360-966-3321.

  10. Comment from irajkhosh:

    hi Mr. Stiggins ,please response following qaustion:
    1)what is the diffrent between assessment for learning and assessment as learning?
    2)what areassessment method in assessment for learning?

    thank you