What Is the Purpose of Assessment?

By Monty Neill

Assessment is unfortunately dominated by standardized tests.

In the current political debate about standards and testing, too many policymakers have lost sight of the primary purpose of assessment. It is not to pit school against school via so-called “school report cards,” or to decide who is worthy to get into college, or to measure whether a district is getting enough bang for its buck.

The primary purpose of assessment is to improve student learning.

To underscore this basic but often-forgotten purpose, a coalition of national education and civil rights groups made such a statement its “Principle 1” in its recently released Principles and Indicators for Student Assessment Systems. The principles were drafted by the coalition, known as the National Forum on Assessment, to guide reform of assessment practices at all levels — from classroom interactions between teachers and students to large-scale accountability exams. Based on emerging exemplary practice around the nation, the principles propose a fundamentally different assessment system than is currently typical.


In schools around the nation, assessment is now dominated by standardized, multiple-choice, norm-referenced tests. When high stakes have been attached to these tests — from reporting school scores in the papers to making decisions about graduation or grade promotion — then teachers are effectively told that they should focus on them. As a result, the weight of standardized testing distorts curriculum and instruction, as well as classroom assessment practices.

Multiple-choice questions treat learning as memorizing isolated pieces of information, rules, and procedures. This approach assumes that first one learns the bits, and only later thinks. But research has shown  “How’s my child doing?” is the most important question a parent asks a teacher. “How are our schools doing?” is an equally important question asked by community members and government leaders.

Both questions are on target. The problem lies in the standardized measures that have been used to try to answer the questions — measures that have not advanced student learning, racial equality, or public accountability of our schools.

Rethinking Schools enthusiastically supports the movement to abandon standardized tests and other mechanisms that grade and sort students based on dubious measurements. But we want to sound some notes of caution on alternative “authentic assessments.” New forms of assessment aren’t inherently less biased than standardized tests — racist attitudes of educators can just as easily bias classroom observations or portfolio assessments.

Moreover, new forms of assessment might simply be more effective ways of assessing whether or not we’re teaching — and students are learning — the same old stuff.

The challenge is two-fold. How can school systems increase the capacity of teachers, working both as individuals or collaboratively, to better know the strengths and weaknesses of their students’ work — so that the students’ work may become more thoughtful and complex?

Second, how can school systems nurture teaching which encourages critical inquiry, problem-solving, and multiculturalism— so that students are better prepared to understand the world and change it?

It’s clear that traditional forms of assessment do neither of these things. The standardized tests which still dominate most districts, including Milwaukee, rarely help teachers know their students, nor do they promote quality teaching and learning.

Authentic assessments have the potential to help teachers know their students better. By observing what kids actually do in the context of meaningful classroom activities, or by reviewing portfolios of students’ work, the strengths and weaknesses of the students are more readily apparent. However, to do this well requires a significantly different set up. Classroom teachers presently are responsible for too many students and have too little time to collaborate and reflect on student work, particularly at the elementary level. Unless this changes, the new forms of assessment are unlikely to succeed, or even be embraced by classroom teachers. Those who support authentic assessment must also demand a restructuring of the teacher day, reduction in class size, and/or a significant influx of funds to hire additional art, music, and physical education teachers so elementary classroom teachers have more time.

Similarly, the notion that “authentic assessment” will necessarily improve the quality of the teaching and learning is also problematic. In some cases, it succeeds. For example, districts which assess writing through student writing samples instead of standardized language tests encourage teachers to have students write more in class. But in many other areas, the direct effect is less clear.

Alternative assessments encourage students to demonstrate competence by performing “authentic” tasks as they might be performed in the real world. But rarely do curricula encourage students to look at the world as a site of inequality, discrimination, and myriad exploitative practices. It may not be realistic for new forms of assessment to embed such social concerns. But if the curricula do not, then schools are not equipping students with the knowledge and competencies it would take to challenge the status quo.

In the rush to adopt “authentic assessments,” districts should be careful to simultaneously address the more fundamental issue of transforming curricula. We believe such curricula should be critical, hopeful, anti-racist, multicultural, gender-fair, environmentally conscious, and activist. Such a transformation will not come through imposition of new standards or forms of assessment from above. Rather, it must be based on the more difficult but more effective approach of convincing educators of the need for change and providing them the training to do so. There are no quick fixes.

In this issue of Rethinking Schools, we are pleased to run several articles on standards and assessment. We view them as a beginning and hope that readers will help us continue the conversation. The question, as is true with so many areas of school reform, is what will best foster more equitable schooling and promote skills and values that are necessary for a more just society.