Improving Assessment

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Today on the blog we have a guest post by friend of EdVisions, Nancy Allen Mastro. We hope you enjoy her thoughts on why and how we should rethink how we assess students to make sure they are future ready.

Dr. Allen-Mastro began her career in education as an elementary school teacher and later spent 26 years as a school administrator, serving in a variety of roles, including Principal, K-12 Director of Curriculum, Instruction, & Assessment, Assistant Superintendent, and Superintendent in rural and suburban schools in Minnesota.  She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Montana State University, a Master’s degree from Bemidji State University, and a Doctorate from the University of North Dakota.  She retired in 2017.  


Improving Assessment

With diploma in hand, a vast majority of college graduates believe they are ready for the workplace.  Hiring managers disagree, however. They routinely report that essential communication skills such as writing and speaking, teamwork, critical and analytical thinking, decision making, and the ability to locate, organize, and evaluate information are lacking  (Hart Research Associates, pages 11-12). The readiness level of high school graduates is equally concerning. Whether they enter the workforce or enroll directly in postsecondary study, missing is an overarching ability to integrate their thinking in a specific context and apply the appropriate skills for the task at hand.  

High school and college graduates’ demonstration of what they know and are able to do is largely based on their experience in school.  Home life matters, to be sure, as does individual drive and determination, but if school is not giving them a compelling reason to think and act critically in regard to what they are learning, why should we expect them to perform differently in larger life contexts?      

We need to take a much broader view in terms of how we ask students to show what they know and demonstrate what they can do.  In an age of over-testing and misguided dependence on standardized scores as the primary gauge of academic proficiency, our teaching roots call us back to more authentic assessments, which begin with authentic learning.    

In an authentic learning task, students wrestle with schoolwork that is rich in complexity and high on relevance; assignments are important to them personally.  Good examples include things like projects, field studies, essays and position papers, presentations, developing practical solutions, building things, conducting experiments, and solving complex problems.  Ideally, students should be part of designing the learning task, at least to some degree. How we measure learning in the context of those tasks and projects must also be authentic.

Authentic assessments help drive a learning task to the top of Bloom’s taxonomy when students are given a well-designed rubric that provides clarity on what they are expected to know and be able to do.  It serves as both a guide for the student and as a scaffolding device for teachers to ascertain when and what type of support to offer. Check-ins and checkpoints along the way help a student learn to manage time and sustain effort.  In the end, when orchestrated effectively by student and teacher, the final assessment should provide clear evidence of learning.

Co-curricular activities and the fine arts, which are heavily performance-based, provide a window into how to motivate and inspire students to do their best.  Students consistently refer to their participation in sports, clubs, activities, and the arts as highly meaningful to them personally. They learn things like leadership, teamwork, solving problems in collaboration with others, and how to persevere when challenged with a difficult situation.  They insist this is where they learn the most about themselves as an individual and who they are as members of a community. It is no surprise that students who participate in co-curriculars and the fine arts generally do better in school. They do so, in part, because they must apply with skill all of what they have learned as they strive toward a specific purpose that matters to them.   Herein lie the kinds of experiences that lead to the gradual development of the sweeping range of hard and soft skills that are needed in all walks of life.

The same kind of authentic tasks and corresponding assessments in co-curriculars are even more critical for students to experience in classroom and thus should not be limited to the court or stage.  Real-world tasks versus those that are contrived require students to integrate their thinking and transfer their learning from one situation, one context, to the next. Interdisciplinary learning, personalized learning, and small learning communities all help make this type of thinking and doing more plausible and ultimately more natural for students.  

Creating such an environment where authentic learning is the norm rather than the exception is not without its challenges.  Traditional educational models enable students to be passive. They can show up, expend little effort, and still pass. On the other hand, when expected to bring a more active mindset to school, it can come as a bit of a shock to them.  In speaking with Jason Becker, Director of the New Century Academy in Hutchinson, Minnesota, students often need guidance in how to become an engaged learner. “Surprisingly, it’s more difficult now to get kids to take ownership of their own learning and come up with ideas they’re interested in compared to what we’ve seen in years past.  They have information at their fingertips but don’t know how to use it in the regular world” (personal communication, December 5th, 2017).  New Century Academy is helping students think critically and solve real-world problems through project-based learning.

What gets in the way in part, Becker laments, is Minnesota’s extensive number of academic standards, a heavy emphasis on standardized tests as a single measure of success, and an exhausting number of state mandates.  All prevent their school from spending more time on authentic learning tasks.  “We want to do things differently, but we are held to old standards. It’s hard for teachers to take risks. They feel the pressure and go to a safe place and tell kids exactly what they need to know so hopefully they’ll do well on the tests.”

Not to be discouraged, New Century Academy is dedicated to finding creative ways to put students in charge of their learning.  Senior portfolios and senior projects are key elements to their redesign efforts. Students begin learning the research process when they enter the Academy.  According to Becker, “In seventh and eighth grade, we have them do mini-projects and a lot of smaller, exploration projects so they learn what they might be interested in.  As they go into ninth and tenth grade, we have them do one or two longer-term projects per quarter.”  This sequence gradually prepares students for the expectations of their senior year. Students at the school are opening a coffee shop and recently started a daycare service for dogs. Becker is optimistic. “We hope they will learn real-life, hands-on application in things that really matter in kids’ lives.”     

The school environment and student attitudes toward school also play a significant role in leading students to be integrated thinkers.  Students do better when schools do an effective job creating an atmosphere where student agency is fostered and students feel a deep and secure sense of belonging.  Successful schools do not leave this to chance and are intentional in understanding students’ perceptions so they can determine what they can do to grow strong, self-directed, capable learners.

The Hope Survey is one of many inventories available to assess the school environment and gauge the feelings of students within that environment.  Used by EdVisions to help schools measures student perceptions of autonomy, hope, academic press, belongingness, and goal orientation, data gives staff insights into students’ level of engagement and their dispositions toward achievement.  According to Dr. Ron Newell, Director of Assessment at EdVisions, the Hope Survey can be a powerful tool for schools that want to foster a culture that positions students for success well beyond the classroom.  “There is so much for schools to understand about themselves. Schools really can increase hope for students,” he says (personal communication, November 30, 2017).  With data in hand, schools are able to zero in on the total culture and devise strategies to improve student perceptions about self and school.  

The primary vehicle to channel improvement efforts is through advisories, which are foundational to supporting students.  Dr. Newell believes a robust advisory system is a central component of any improvement effort because advisories have proven to work best for cultivating engagement and goal setting.  “The Hope Survey is a good perceiver in terms of how successful students think they can be.  Having goals helps people’s hope to continue to grow. When we help students set goals, as in a personalized learning plan, this helps them to become goal-oriented.  They have decisions they need to make, and when they make decisions they become self-directed. These are the ‘learning to learn skills.’ That’s what life’s about, and that’s what we’re trying to teach kids to be about.”  He reflects that when schools implement the kinds of strategies that EdVisions helps them target, they see improvement.

Real-world learning, authentic assessments, robust data, goal setting for students, and regular feedback on progress are just of few of the things that are needed to change the narrative on how well graduates fare in the workplace, no matter when they enter it.  “We won’t get to authentic learning if we aren’t measuring it,” says Dr. Newell. “If people see the necessity for authentic outcomes, they’ll see the need for authentic learning.”   He, like many educators, hopes that legislators will begin to see the importance of authentic outcomes.  “It can’ just be about tests – they aren’t authentic.”  They are not a bad thing, he reasons, “but they are not the end-all.”       

If you’d like further information on authentic assessments and how EdVisions can support you, or if you’d like information on how to utilize the Hope Survey to improve student outcomes, please contact Dr. Ron Newell  He can also be reached at 507-317-2223.


Hart Research Associates. (2015). Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success.  Washington, DC.   Retrieved from