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What are assessment capable learners?

6 min read


“In education, assessment is at its best when it is ongoing and most difficult to distinguish from the teaching that is occurring.” — Changing the Way you Teach, Improving the Way Students Learn, published by ASCD (2009)

When we think about assessments, sometimes our attention is directed toward state assessments. These assessments, also known as high-stakes testing, typically provide very little feedback to students and teachers. An assessment provides effective feedback that is both descriptive and timely, and helps guide instruction. Very often, high-stakes tests do not meet that expectation, which leads the stakeholders in a school system scratching their heads about why those “assessments” are tied to teacher and administrator evaluations.

Our present times of high-stakes testing has led some educators and parents to dislike assessment, which is unfortunate because assessment is very important to the education process. It gives educators a window into the learning world of students, and provides students the opportunity to gauge where they are in their own learning process, as well as where they should go next (Hattie, 2009).

Unfortunately, as schools negotiate their way through high-stakes testing, teachers and school leaders are falling out of practice when it comes to creating or finding the best instruments to use. Professional development time is spent in compliance, instead of real learning opportunities. This will continue to have negative effects on learning.

True authentic assessments

Assessments are supposed to help students gain better insight into their learning, and that learning happens both in school, and outside the school walls. Giselle Martin-Kniep, President of Learner-Centered Initiatives says,

“Classroom assessments fall into a continuum of real-life problems or tasks on one extreme, and narrowly defined and isolated test items on the other. Life in and outside of school presents us with challenges and opportunities that comprise the entire range of that continuum.” Read more.

We need to remember that we are preparing students for more than just tests. Tests are often used to detect right and wrong answers, and we know learning is more than that. We, as educators, are preparing students for future life events that will require them to think, and not just get the right answer. Kneip goes on to say,

Oftentimes, these challenges are complex and require that we use skills and knowledge from a variety of areas. Getting a loan, preparing a dinner for guests with different dietary needs, and organizing a family vacation require the use and application of more than one skill and area of knowledge. On the other hand, at one point or another, we face situations that resemble the kinds of tests we take in schools, as in filling out job applications, taking the written part of a driving test, or reading a recipe.”

So how do we prepare students to be assessment capable learners? After all, they need to have a hand in their own learning.

Assessment capable learners

John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of Research at the University of Melbourne, is best known for Visible Learning. Visible Learning is the largest body of research ever done in education, involving more than 1,032 meta-analysis, not to mention over 300 million students. Hattie’s research focused, and continues to focus, on what works and what doesn’t in education.

According to Hattie, 95% of what educators do in the classroom has an impact on student but that is not just due to good instructional practices. It is due to the fact that students have a great deal of pre-learned knowledge before they enter the classroom. There are ways that educators can make a true impact, which Hattie gives an effect of .40 and above. One of the best ways to ensure having an effect of over .40 is encouraging students to become assessment capable learners, which has an effect size of 1.44.

In Visible Learning (2009), Hattie says, “The fundamental premise is that all students should be educated in ways that develop their capability to assess their own learning.” Unfortunately, students are not always given the opportunity to do so, and it begins at a very young age. According to Hattie, “So often, the most important assessment decisions tend to be made by adults on behalf of students.”

Kniep agrees,

“Teachers could increase the room for authentic assessments by shifting some of the transmission of knowledge from themselves to the students. One effective strategy for doing this involves the use of jigsaws. In this strategy, the teacher divides some of the material in a text or unit into sub-topics and assigns each sub-topic to a small group of students. Each group reads and reviews its own topic simultaneously until they have mastered the material. The jigsaws are then disbanded into new groups comprised of a student from each of the original small groups. Students take turns teaching each other the new material until everyone has all the knowledge of the original sub-groups.”

Another way to involve students in the process of assessing their own learning is through the use of student-led conferences, which can happen at a very young age. Teachers work with students to review their best work, and they also provide feedback on how some of their weaker work can improve. Those students then have a student-led conference with their parents and walk through their own learning showing their parents where they do well, and where they need to strengthen their learning.

Through this learning process, students need to ask themselves three very important questions:

  • Where am I going?
  • How am I going?
  • Where to next?

In the end

As educators, learning has always had a profound impact on us. We find ways to learn every day. Whether it’s through what we teach at school, learn in graduate and doctoral courses, attending edcamps, or through our PLN’s on social media, we are lifelong learners. Our students should have those same opportunities.

Perhaps Royce Sadler said it best when he wrote, “We need to let students into the secret, allowing them to become insiders of the assessment process. We need to make provision for them to become members of the guild of people who can make consistently sound judgments and know why those judgments are justifiable” (1998).

That is assessment capable learning.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is a K-5 principal on a leave of absence to work as a Visible Learning trainer with schools around North America. He writes the Finding Common Ground blog for Education Week, and this year his book on school climate (co-authored with Sean Slade) will be published by ASCD, and Flipped Leadership will be published by Corwin Press. Peter can be found at and @PeterMDeWitt.