In order to make efficient and equitable decisions around instruction and intervention, educators must first understand the specific strengths and needs of the individual learner. Moreover, this information must be obtained with specificity, accuracy, and efficiency so that the right action can be taken at each turn throughout the year.
It is through the effective application of assessment tools that we are able to understand, monitor, and promote student growth, both in terms of academics and social-emotional behavior (SEB), as well as respond with equitable supports.
Therefore, educators need a cohesive, holistic system that enables the use of the right assessment at the right time for the right reason, and a strong culture of using data to take appropriate action. In order to help all students grow throughout the year, districts and schools must have a comprehensive and balanced assessment system.
What is a Comprehensive and Balanced Assessment System?
A comprehensive and balanced assessment system is a cohesive set of high-quality assessment practices and tools that promotes an informed, intentional selection of assessments for the right purpose and supplies all stakeholders with the right information to inform next steps.
A system is comprehensive when it integrates a complete set of assessment types to appropriately and effectively support teaching and learning.
A system is balanced when those tools are ensconced in high-quality practices that support knowledgeable use of each assessment for the right purpose at the right time, both in isolation and as a holistic system.
In other words, comprehensive is the what, and balanced is the how.
A comprehensive and balanced assessment system equips educators in every role across a district with the high-quality assessment tools, practices, and resources needed to support all learners. And by leveraging such a system, educators are equipped to accelerate learning for all students.
Tenets of a Balanced Assessment System
Although it’s important to have the right tools, having the right tools isn’t enough—it comes down to how we use them. The various facets around how assessments are used are what make the system not only comprehensive but also balanced.
Focuses on Purpose
Most importantly, a balanced assessment system is rooted in purpose. A balanced assessment system is marked by the intentional usage of assessment tools for their intended purpose, thoughtfully and to a specific end.
As The Aspen Institute affirms, “Few assessments or assessment systems can serve more than two or three purposes well and they tend to work best when the various purposes have been prioritized explicitly.” It goes on to warn that if assessments are slated to “fulfill too many purposes—especially disparate purposes—it rarely fulfills any purpose well.”
Secondly, a balanced assessment system extends articulations of purpose to include how each assessment will be used: what data they produce, which decisions they will inform, and which actions the results will put into motion.
A balanced assessment system promotes alignment in many forms, recalling the Center for Assessment’s balanced assessment tenants of “coherence, continuity, and comprehensiveness.” Assessments should be aligned to each other, complementary in terms of purpose and use without duplicative assessments.
Designing a Comprehensive Assessment System affirms the power of such a system is that it is structurally capable of providing the right information at the student, class, grade, school, and district level, and able to yield the right granular and high-level insights for educators in every role.
A balanced assessment system also supports alignment between instruction, curriculum, and assessment. The Center for Assessment advises that in a balanced assessment system, “assessment at all levels would be linked back to the same underlying model of student learning.” The right assessments are thoughtfully woven into instructional practices, paced according to the district’s unique scope and sequence, and assessed at correct Depth of Knowledge (DOK) and level of rigor.
A balanced assessment system consists of high-quality assessment tools that are both valid and reliable. Validity is the extent to which a test or item accurately measures the construct, skill, or domain it purports to measure. Reliability means that the assessment’s results are statically stable and consistent across many administrations.
Balanced assessment systems consist of high-quality assessments composed of high-quality, culturally-responsive items. If either is missing, the assessment system’s quality is depreciated, leading to decisions being made based upon untrustworthy data. FutureEd affirms that high-quality assessments in support of student learning matter now more than ever. Using these tools to guide instruction helps ensure that decisions are not based on implicit biases or faulty data.
A truly balanced assessment system empowers educators to monitor the growth of all students, and identify when certain needs are not being met. A brief by WestEd reiterated that when done well, assessment systems yield necessary information for educators, families, the community, and students to measure progress and increase achievement.
This means that a balanced assessment system enables educators to carefully monitor groups of students, including those who are systemically disadvantaged, to ensure that they are receiving the support they need to succeed and making growth at expected rates.
A balanced assessment system should also help educators avoid perpetuating unfair learning trajectories and making assumptions based on implicit biases. It is important that student needs are understood and not assumed, and healthy, balanced assessment systems provide the practices needed to do so.
Reinforces Assessment Literacy
A balanced assessment system supports and is supported by educators’ assessment literacy, which can be defined as an understanding of fundamental assessment concepts and procedures and the skills needed to create assessments and analyze data with fidelity.
The Center for Assessment suggests that developing the assessment literacy of its educators and leaders is critical to the design and implementation of high-quality balanced systems and that the onus for doing so should be with the district, so that assessment literacy can be anchored in the district’s unique assessment system.
As educators rely on assessment data to make key instructional decisions, deep assessment literacy is essential.
In a balanced assessment system, assessment data are reported in a way that makes next steps clear for all educators, even with limited training.
Data are not inherently valuable—it’s what we do with data that matters.
If we do not understand the data we receive or struggle to translate those data into specific next steps, data essentially does nothing positive or productive. A balanced assessment system consists of assessment tools with targeted reporting for the specific task at hand.
Thanks for reading an excerpt of our recent “Accelerating and Assessing: Using a Comprehensive, Balanced Assessment System to Equitably Close Learning Gaps” whitepaper. Download the free whitepaper here to read it in full.
Article Updated: October 2021
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