Assessment Culture: What It Is and Why It Matters


Assessment Culture: What It Is and Why It Matters

from ISTE

By Erika Landl, Caroline Wylie and Caitlin McLemore     May 20, 2024

Assessment Culture: What It Is and Why It Matters

In the post-COVID pandemic educational setting, assessment offers ways to gain crucial insights into student thinking and learning and the areas requiring support for progress toward learning goals. While thoughtful assessment design and implementation are necessary for student success, building a strong assessment culture in schools is often overlooked but equally important.

ISTE is collaborating with the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment (NCIEA) to explore the characteristics of a healthy assessment culture. The first step is to consider the idea of school culture and how it underpins the related concept of assessment culture.

The Significance of School Culture

School culture is the set of implicit assumptions, beliefs and expectations that drive the activities and behaviors within a school. This includes the unwritten rules about decision-making and the types of achievements that are valued and celebrated. Research indicates that reforms often fail in schools when they clash with or ignore the existing school culture.

Similarly, assessment culture is shaped by the underlying beliefs and expectations that students, educators and leaders have about assessment practices. In the same way that school culture can support or inhibit efforts to implement new ideas, a school’s assessment culture can influence whether assessment practices — directly or indirectly — positively impact teaching and learning.

Contrasting Perspectives of Assessment Culture

We can view different components of assessment culture on a continuum, ranging from less supportive to more supportive of teaching and learning. Imagine a school in which students talk about assessment as a process that confirms whether they are smart (or not). Compare that to another school where students see assessment as a process that identifies strengths and weaknesses that inform what they do next. We know that students who adopt a growth mindset are better equipped to tackle challenging work, deal with learning setbacks and have agency over their learning. In other words, using formative assessment as a tool for learning fosters this growth mindset in students.

Now consider contrasting teacher experiences. In one school, limited assessment-related professional learning opportunities only focus on the administration of purchased products. In another school, ongoing, assessment-related professional learning opportunities prioritize formative assessment practices that are embedded within the student learning experience.

The research is clear: Formative assessment has beneficial outcomes on student learning. Teachers are often drilled on summative assessments or test prep, but there isn’t enough professional development provided for effective formative assessment practices. When a school’s assessment culture focuses on test prep rather than best practices for classroom assessments, teachers and students miss out.

School and district leaders influence the assessment culture throughout a school system. When school or district goals prioritize test performance over a comprehensive demonstration of student understanding, this often leads to a narrowed curriculum. This focus on “teaching to the test” restricts students' access to an enriching educational experience.

First Step in Changing Assessment Culture

Due to the potential impact of assessment culture on practice, educators and leaders need to identify the cultural aspects at work within their school or district. Because assessment culture is built over time and often based on assumptions about assessment that are not explicitly articulated or shared by everyone in a school, understanding and changing a school’s assessment culture takes time.

One way to begin examining assessment culture is to ask people how they feel about the different types of assessments used within their school. Have conversations and gather input from a wide variety of people in the school community, including students, families, classroom teachers, support staff and school leaders. Provide multiple avenues for stakeholders to share their thoughts and opinions, such as anonymous surveys, structured focus groups or open-ended discussions.

The process of examining assessment culture through conversations helps schools and districts identify factors that support or potentially constrain the effective use of assessment evidence. By understanding your assessment culture, you can develop a strategy for changing assessment-related practices (e.g., assessment selection/development, use of evidence, professional learning, etc.) to more effectively support student learning.

ISTE is partnering with assessment experts from the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, with funding from the Walton Family Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to explore the concept of assessment culture and refine a set of assessment culture continua. The ultimate goal is to support districts in identifying key aspects of assessment culture (i.e., make them visible) and facilitate change for school-based assessment practices to more positively impact student learning.

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