Home Assessment Re-Balancing Assessment: Moving Towards More Formative and Performance Based Approaches

Re-Balancing Assessment: Moving Towards More Formative and Performance Based Approaches


Part 1 of 2 Suggesting an Improved Approach to Accountability and Testing

students-engaged-deeper-learningI recently had an informative discussion with Stuart Kahl, founding principal of Measured Progess. Stuart has been at the forefront of large-scale education assessment for decades. Those who read EmergingEdTech regularly know that we’ve been exploring the importance of assessment as an opportunity to evolve educational practice and improve teaching and learning, so I welcomed the opportunity to talk with Stuart and gain new insights.

It was encouraging to hear Kahl, who has been immersed in the controversial and frustrating world of standardized assessments for a long time, share his passionate belief that we need to move towards more formative and curriculum-embedded assessment models to better serve both students and teachers.

Together  with  Bryan Goodwin of McREL International and Peter Hofman, Stuart published the white paper, Re-Balancing Assessment, in January 2015. Following our talk, I began to explore this insightful document, subtitled “Placing Formative and Performance Assessment at the Heart of Learning and Accountability”. 

High-Stakes Testing: Unimpressive Results, at Best

The mixed results of high-stakes testing and accountability initiatives such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) programs indicate that these endeavors are not effective enough to remain in place as is. We need a better approach. While there have been pockets of improvement, these plateaud quickly, and there have been unintended consequences that indicate the need for change.

Numerous studies are cited in support of these challenges and limitations:

“An analysis of trend data in 25 states since the implementation of NCLB … showed that ‘students were progressing in math at a much faster rate before the national high-stakes testing movement’ … ‘data suggest that pressure has diminishing returns for math achievement over time’.” (Nichols, Glass, & Berliner, 2012, p. 26).

“Long-term trends from the NAEP reveal a similar pattern … we appear to have hit a performance ceiling. As a result, we have been unable to help great numbers of students, especially older ones, master high-level reading and math skills.” (Institution of Education Sciences, 2013).

Similar results were observed with comparable programs in the U.K. “The problem is that top-down strategies have a very limited half-life. Once the school or system has begun to improve and to take ownership of its own development, the continuing pressure for external accountability becomes oppressive, alienating, and counter-productive.” (Hopkins, 2013, p. 9).

While limits on the impact of high-stakes testing and accountability are unfortunate, their unintended consequences are even more of a concern.

  • Increasing stress levels for professionals: A recent study by MetLife Foundation indicated that 51% of teachers and 48% of principals were under great stress several days a week or more. This was a significant increase in comparison to the results from similar studies conducted in prior decades (MetLife, 2012). “Such stress, it turns out, impedes performance.”
  • Little positive impact on classroom teaching: A study of 994 students in grades 1, 3, and 5, across the U.S., determined that despite efforts to ensure greater teaching consistency through these efforts, just7 percent received high-quality instruction and emotional support over all three years.” (Pianta, Belsky, Houts, & Morrison, 2007).
  • Disengaged students: “Researchers have observed that test-harried teachers often have little time to pause and respond to teachable moments or episodes of spontaneous student curiosity, thus reducing student engagement and interest …” (Engel, 2011).

Pivoting to a New Formula

So what is the answer? How can we implement some sort of standardized accountability, but do so in a way that really integrates with teaching and learning in a supportive, positive manner? Shouldn’t assessments actually help teachers teach and help students learn? Is our current high pressure system of summative assessment all bad? Not necessarily, as the paper notes, “these policies have helped focus our entire system of education using data, raising expectations for learning, and, in the case of No Child Left Behind, the moral imperative of helping all children succeed.” Nevertheless, we seem to have reached a point of diminishing returns.

A wide range of entities are working towards better alternatives to the single test-based accountability paradigm, with a focus on performance based assessment. “The time is right for a new formula centered on the game-changing assessment system” proposed in this paper.

In Part 2 of this series, we explore the approach advocated in this white paper, which reflects the research, evidence, and experience and “the solid foundation laid by others, including the National Research Council’s (NRC)(2012) calls for greater emphasis in schooling on deeper learning.”


Engel, S. (2011). Children’s need to know: Curiosity in schools. Harvard Educational Review, 81(4), 625– 645.

Hopkins, D. (2013). Exploding the myths of school reform. East Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Centre for Strategic Reform.

Institute of Education Sciences. (June 2013).  The Nation’s Report Card: Trends in Academic Progress Washington, DC:  Author.

MetLife, Inc. (2012). The MetLife survey of the American teacher: Challenges for school leadership. Retrieved from https://www.metlife.com/assets/cao/ foundation/MetLife-Teacher-Survey-2012.pdf

National Research Council Board. (2012). Education for life and work – developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Nichols, S. L., Glass, G. V., & Berliner, D. C. (2012). Highstakes testing and student achievement: Updated analyses with NAEP data. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 20(20).

Pianta, R. C., Belsky, J., Houts, R., & Morrison, F. (2007). Opportunities to Learn in America’s Elementary Classrooms. Science, 315(5820), 1795–1796.




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