Moving Aside the Assessment Fog

The idea of “assessment fog” made me smile. John McCarthy titled his Edutopia blog post with it – 3 Guidelines to Eliminating Assessment Fog. When driving, fog may cause tension, miscalculation, hesitation, or lack of visibility. Assessment (and the use of the data or results) may do the same thing. How can we be sure we use assessment results as a support for learning and use them accurately?

It is important that McCarthy’s number one guideline was to “identify and communicate clear learning targets.” The second half, so to speak, of the learning target is the success criteria. And the third piece of the formula is clarifying both of these with learners.


Think about it. If assessment is a support for learning, every activity, task, discussion, or assessment we ask learners to engage in has to be connected to what they need to know and be able to do.  As teachers, we need to be clear on the destination – the target. Once we are clear, the next step is communicating the target to students and clarifying it with them, making sure that they clearly understand both the goal and how’ll they’ll know when they meet it. Clarifying what success looks like – those look-fors – provides learners (and teachers) a clear path to where they are going and how they’ll know when they get there. This idea also means that every activity we engage students in is aligned to the learning targets and supports students in learning what they need to meet the stated success criteria.


McCarthy’s second guideline is really focused on how sound grading practices impact students. For this conversation we’ll equate “assessment” with every activity a student engages in that generates a score of some kind. Ken O’Connor’s work in A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades really helps educators focus in on what matters if we want grading practices to be sound and accurately reflect student learning. He makes the following four points:

  • Use quality assessments.
  • Focus on achievement and eliminate attendance and behaviors (effort, participation, etc.). While attendance and behaviors may affect achievement, they aren’t part of the achievement grade.
  • Look for evidence of learning and higher achievement (i.e., redoing tests or assignments) rather than assigning or granting extra credit.
  • Consider alternatives to “average.”


We all like options. Empowering student voice and choice in the assessment process builds skills such as critical thinking and problem solving. Providing clear learning targets and success criteria doesn’t necessarily mean that all learners use the same path to get there. Involving students in the assessment process is an important aspect of dispelling the fog. Students can learn to pose quality questions, suggest ways to demonstrate that they can meet success criteria, design alternatives that allow them to collaborate with each other, and set challenges for themselves. Providing for and encouraging learner involvement really activates students to own their learning in a deeper and more meaningful way. Building student agency is a support for learning as much as assessment is.

Photo credit: ajari.

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