What are classroom assessment standards, and how do they impact student learning?

The classroom assessment standards published by the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation (JCSEE) are designed to support teachers in assessing student mastery. As educators, we’re all very familiar with content standards, and we understand that we are to teach these standards and assess them for mastery. But let’s talk about that last bit, “assess for mastery.”

When I think back to my eighth-grade math classroom, I remember how I would measure students’ progress toward mastery: I would break standards up into separate learning targets, and those learning targets provided me with a progression for each standard so I could scaffold instruction for my students. But what about the assessments that I gave to determine mastery along the way? I know I designed many opportunities for my students to demonstrate their learning, but did I really have evidence of conceptual understanding that would support students’ growth as standards became increasingly complex? And if I was using standards to effectively teach content, why was I not using standards to effectively assess content?

The classroom assessment standards, first published in 2015, would have helped me in assessing my students more confidently. They provide the necessary foundation for developing and implementing quality classroom assessments, and they are meant to guide current classroom practices so we can positively impact students’ learning. They’re organized into three domains—Foundations, Use, and Quality—and they are the only standards approved by the American National Standards Institute.

Let’s dig a little deeper into the standards and how you might use them in your classroom to further student learning.

A summary of the classroom assessment standards

When we take a closer look at the three domains of the classroom assessment standards, we find six Foundations standards. These provide the starting point for developing and implementing sound and fair classroom assessment.

  • Assessment Purpose
  • Learning Expectations
  • Assessment Design
  • Student Engagement in the Assessment
  • Assessment Preparation
  • Informed Students and Parents/Guardians

The ultimate goal of classroom assessment is to inform teaching and further student learning, so when the intent of the assessment is clear, we are able to effectively align our instructional practices with our classroom assessment practices. The foundation standards articulate the importance of providing multiple opportunities to engage students in demonstrating their understanding, while also stressing the importance of clear communication processes.

The classroom assessment standards have five Use standards that cover everything from understanding how students did to providing feedback and planning instruction following an assessment:

  • Analysis of Student Performance
  • Effective Feedback
  • Instructional Follow-Up
  • Grades and Summary Comments
  • Reporting

When there are productive methods for analyzing student performance, there are opportunities for providing students with effective feedback. Feedback helps kids understand where they are academically and encourages them to use that information to move their learning forward. The Use standards also allow teachers to adjust their current instructional practices to better support students’ efforts, and they remind us to ensure any grades associated with assessments are provided to students in a timely manner and truly reflect mastery of the content.

Finally, five Quality standards focus on providing fair and accurate feedback to all students:

  • Cultural and Linguistic Diversity
  • Exceptionality and Special Ed
  • Unbiased and Fair Assessment
  • Reliability and Validity
  • Reflection

As assessment practices take place in the classroom, it is imperative that students from varying cultural and linguistic backgrounds are provided with adequate opportunities to demonstrate their knowledge. Similarly, students with exceptionalities may require differentiation, and assessment practices should be adjusted accordingly. When they are free from bias, fair classroom assessments ensure there are no tasks that might unfairly impact student performance. Assessments should also consistently provide dependable information that supports the interpretation of each student’s academic knowledge and skills. Ongoing reflection and revision of classroom assessments are best practices to ensure that all methods used to assess students’ learning continue to provide fair, useful, and accurate information.

The classroom assessment standards in action

The classroom assessment standards cover a lot of ground, and I often find that sharing an example from my personal experience can help bring them to life and make it easier for educators to see how they can support them in their classroom.

In 2017, I was serving as an instructional coach in Texas, where I live. Some of our grade-level teams were giving practice STAAR tests, our state assessment, to determine how ready students were for the actual state assessment that would be given later that spring. After the assessment was administered, teachers began analyzing the data and quickly became discouraged by the number of tutoring groups needed for several essential content standards. My role was to work alongside the team of teachers and offer the lenses of collaboration and inquiry. Both then and now, it became clear that focusing on the Foundations and Use standards could help us better serve our students in the time leading up to the real STAAR testing day.

As a discussion developed about why students did not perform as well as we expected on the practice test, the question of purpose emerged, and mixed purposes began to surface. Some teachers explained that they wanted to give the practice assessment to determine how close to passing students were. Other teachers wanted to know which standards their students had mastered so they knew which standards to focus on reteaching. A third group of teachers wanted to have their students practice taking a timed test using test-taking strategies. It was quickly evident that the purpose of the assessment was very muddy. That lack of clarity made next steps unclear, which caused some frustration during our data discussion.

The classroom assessment standards would have served this team of educators well had we had the opportunity to align our purpose ahead of time. The first Foundations standard, Assessment Purpose, asks us to determine why an assessment is needed before we actually begin assessing students, and it provides an opportunity to discuss how the assessment results will be used once we’ve collected the data.

As our data discussion continued, it became evident that several students did not master the most essential grade-level content standards. These particular standards had already been taught for an extended period prior to the assessment. This brought up the question, “How is everyone teaching these standards?” Each team member shared multiple resources and strategies, and differences in opinion on how these specific standards should be taught surfaced during our conversation as well.

The second Foundations standard, Learning Expectations, addresses the alignment of classroom assessment with instructional practices while providing clear learning expectations in student-friendly language. This would have benefited teachers and students at my school by allowing teachers to calibrate instructional strategies. It would also have helped ensure that students were given opportunities to learn in the same way they would be expected to demonstrate their learning on the assessment.

It was evident that our discussion and planning would need to continue during another planning period, so we continued our conversation then. We decided to share student work samples from the assessment at that meeting, and teachers shared their instructional practices with one another to discuss and evaluate their effectiveness. We wanted to ensure we wouldn’t be repeating ineffective strategies and improperly preparing students for success moving forward.

Foundation standard number four, Student Engagement in Assessment, allowed us to determine what exemplars should look like to students. For reteach lessons to be designed effectively, we realized, it was important to remember that students must understand what is expected of them through the illustration of quality work. We also leaned on the second standard in the Use domain, Effective Feedback, to ensure students were getting timely and useful feedback after we followed the first Use standard, Analysis of Student Performance. We committed to allowing more time for feedback when we designed the new lessons that would allow us to reteach the challenging standards.

Next steps

As you continue on your beautiful journey as an educator, I encourage you to think about how the classroom assessment standards could help you in your work. Ask yourself the following questions about your current practices:

  • Do I provide a clear purpose for teaching and learning to my students?
  • Are my classroom instruction and assessments aligned to this purpose?
  • Do I use multiple pedagogical strategies to allow my students to demonstrate their understanding?
  • Are my classroom assessment processes and decisions fair for all my students?
  • Do I engage my students in assessment processes to keep them motivated and connected to their purpose and use?
  • Am I assessment literate?

If you’d like more support with assessment, I encourage you to talk to your principal about professional learning opportunities, including NWEA offerings on assessment empowerment. Our sessions can help you understand the elements of a balanced assessment system, build skills in communicating the results of assessments, help you triangulate data to inform your instructional decisions, and make it easier to reframe assessments as opportunities for students to take greater ownership of their learning.

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