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The Case for Assessment Literacy: Why It’s Critical for All of Us

Written by
January 31st, 2019


In the words of Dr. W. James Popham, assessment literacy “describes a person’s understanding of what education tests can do—and what they can’t. To be assessment literate, one needs to comprehend the basic concepts and procedures of education tests likely to influence education decisions.”

Essentially, assessment literacy means we have broad knowledge and skills around “all things” assessment and data, in terms of types, purposes, methods, data metrics, and score interpretations. It gives us the background knowledge we need in order to correctly interpret results into actionable information.

As districts evaluate their current need for enhanced or reinforced assessment literacy among staff, I offer the following ideas for consideration:

Assessment directly impacts instruction and curriculum decisions.

Assessments aren’t a closed circuit. They are integrally related to all aspects of teaching and learning—particularly instructional and curricular decisions. For example, we’d use assessments to help us answer:

  • Should I reteach or move on to the next lesson?
  • Are our intervention programs effective?
  • Does our instructional rigor match assessment rigor?
  • Did my student master the learning targets of this course?

The “data-driven decisions” we make in relation to assessments aren’t limited to assessing grades or determining proficiency levels. They answer the questions like: What do we do next? Where can we improve? How can I continue to support this student? They impact the entire ecosystem of student learning.

Our ability to use data from assessments depends on how well we understand those assessments.

While new teachers receive little (if any) pre-service training in assessment literacy, we still call on those teachers to make data-driven decisions—essentially, sometimes asking them to use knowledge and skills that may not have been provided to them. This means that we open an opportunity for data to be misunderstood and therefore, completely unintentionally, lead to misinformed decisions.

Misusing assessment results can look like many things, from assigning grades based on formative assessment methods, to evaluating teacher effectiveness based only on state standardized testing scores, to misdiagnosing student intervention needs. It makes sense that if we don’t understand our assessments and their results, our actions may be counterproductive to student learning, program decisions, resource allocation, and more.

Understanding the assessment itself tells us what the assessment does and does not measure, what questions it can and cannot help us answer, and how to read the results correctly. Simply put: we need to understand what we’re looking at if they’re going to drive decisions.

Assessment results aren’t just for teachers.

Students and parents must be consumers of student data, and they will need guidance in understanding what assessment results mean and don’t mean. Educators need to feel comfortable enough with assessments and their results to help those audiences distill what they need to know.

Looking for a concise overview of assessment literacy basics? Read our latest eBook here:


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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1 Comment

  1. Kelly Byrne on February 1, 2019 at 6:42 am

    Chris, Hello!
    Great post! So insightful and meaningful.
    Thank you!

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