Voices in Education

Is Assessment Literacy the "Magic Bullet"?
Today’s educators are being called on, almost hourly, to make important decisions hinging on the results of educational assessments. Yet, in many instances the educators making those assessment-dependent decisions are doing so without a genuine understanding of educational assessment. Clearly, something is wrong with this picture.

If educators knew what they needed to know about assessment, would we see an instant, across-the-board improvement in schooling? If educators knew what they needed to know about assessment, would policymakers and the general citizenry begin showering pervasive applause on those who operate our schools? In other words, would a solid dose of “assessment literacy” for educators cure what’s ailing today’s education? The answer to all three questions is a regrettable NO.

But while assessment literacy is not a magic bullet capable of transforming the miserable to the marvelous, assessment literacy can trigger meaningful improvements in the way we educate our students. Maybe assessment literacy is not a magic bullet, but it may well be a magic BB. Let’s take a closer look at this potentially potent little pellet.

For openers, here’s a definition: Assessment literacy is present when a person possesses the assessment-related knowledge and skills needed for the competent performance of that person’s responsibilities. This conception clearly makes assessment literacy responsibility-linked and, of course, different people have different education-relevant responsibilities. For instance, to carry out their responsibilities competently, teachers and school leaders usually need rather distinctive sets of assessment skills and knowledge—some the same and some quite different. But parents, laypersons, and even students also need responsibility-dependent dollops of assessment literacy so they can make the kinds of education-related decisions they will sometimes need to make. Let me illustrate.

I’d want every educator, every citizen, and surely every parent to understand why it is that most accountability tests currently being used to evaluate the quality of our schools are simply incapable of doing so. These instructionally insensitive accountability tests tend to measure the socioeconomic composition of a school’s student body, not the effectiveness with which those students have been taught. Everyone who has a hand in judging how well our schools are doing needs to understand the disturbing reality that we are currently mismeasuring educational quality.

As a second example, for over a decade we have had persuasive empirical evidence showing that the classroom use of formative assessment can dramatically improve how well students learn. The formative-assessment process uses assessment-elicited evidence of student’s progress so both teachers and students can, if they need to, make suitable adjustments in what they’re doing. Formative assessment may not boost scores sufficiently on instructionally insensitive accountability tests so as to satisfy today’s unrealistic requirements, but formative assessment most certainly helps kids learn better what they need to learn. Who needs to understand this? Well, it should surely be all educators, all citizens (especially parents and policymakers), but it should also be students themselves. Students have a right to know that there’s an assessment-based process out there that, if employed by teachers, will substantially improve instruction.

Assessment literacy for educators may be no magic bullet. But it’s a magic BB that we most desperately need.

About the Author: W. James Popham began his career in education as a high school teacher in Oregon. He is professor emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He is the author of twenty-five books and a former president of the American Educational Research Association. He is most recently the author of Unlearned Lessons: Six Stumbling Blocks to Our Schools’ Success (Harvard Education Press, 2009).