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Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Future of Learning newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every Wednesday with trends and top stories about education innovation. Subscribe today!

Assessments have a bad rap in schools. Tests stress students out; they can be high-stakes for schools and teachers. But the word assessment describes vastly different things. Yes, the nail-biting, end-of-year exam is an assessment. But so is the couple-questions quiz a teacher gives at the end of a lesson to get a sense of how many students understood it. These lower-stakes assessments happen all the time in the classroom and they’re vital for student performance. Assessments create feedback for teachers and students alike, and the high value of feedback – particularly timely feedback – is well-documented by learning scientists. It’s useful to know you’re doing something wrong right after you do it.

The Assessment for Learning Project is trying to improve assessment’s reputation and get it recognized as a positive part of the learning process. The initiative advocates assessment systems that empower students, lead to greater equity and deepen students’ skillsets by virtue of their design.

Grantees and project partners are exploring decades-old methods like portfolios and capstone projects as means of assessment. The methods, then, are not new. But Sarah Lench, ALP’s director, said a widespread desire to assess skills like critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity – the “4 Cs” – is new, and that’s driving interest in getting away from standardized tests to measure student progress.

“The practices themselves might not sound brand new and shiny, but the contexts and the drivers behind them are where we think the innovation is happening,” Lench said.

The project has awarded grants to 17 teams of education leaders at the school, district and state levels, all of whom are working to improve assessment systems. No one is arguing schools should stop measuring math and reading ability or content knowledge. But these grantees are seeking ways to better balance assessment systems that have prioritized that to the exclusion of other skills for decades.

In Virginia, Fairfax County Public Schools has a “Portrait of a Graduate” that identifies the skills students need to be successful in today’s world. Among them are the 4 Cs. But the district noticed principals and teachers still face pressure to teach to the narrower state tests, and therefore make decisions about what students learn that ignore the goals of the graduate profile.

Related: How Mississippi made some of the biggest leaps in national test scores

As an ALP grantee, Fairfax County partnered with 11 other Virginia districts to create what they call student-led assessment, a process that includes daily reflections on learning, student-led conferences and capstone projects that force students to engage with the community. This process, they hope, will make assessment more relevant to what students are learning, and give them the communication, collaboration and other skills they’ll need along the way.

“The practices themselves might not sound brand new and shiny, but the contexts and the drivers behind them are where we think the innovation is happening.”

One major recommendation from ALP is to invest in teacher training as part of such work, according to Tony Siddall, K-12 program officer for Next Generation Learning Challenges, a lead partner on the project. 

“The most impactful assessment for learning is the assessment of what is happening in the classroom, integrated with instruction and the curriculum,” Siddall said.

That’s done by teachers. But the time and investment necessary to increase teacher capacity is one barrier to doing this work. It’s hard to fit into an already-packed school day and year.

Still, few people have to be convinced it’s time for change. Siddall said there is a surprising degree of consensus among parents, teachers and employers about what skills schools should be measuring. They don’t want to stop measuring academic skills like reading and writing. But there is widespread agreement that collaboration and social skills should be in the mix, as they are considered increasingly important for success in well-paying jobs.

ALP is helping schools strike a balance, ensuring change doesn’t simply bring new, competing tests, but a system of assessment that supports student learning while giving parents, teachers, state leaders and future employers the information they need to know about student achievement.

(The Assessment for Learning Project is funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, both of which are among the many funders of The Hechinger Report.)

This story about innovative assessment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter

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Tara García Mathewson

Tara García Mathewson is a reporter covering inequality and innovation in K-12 education, nationally, and she oversees coverage for Hechinger en Español as the languages editor. She has been writing...

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