Assessments: Start with the Why

“Assessment” has become one of the biggest buzzwords in education: formative assessment, summative assessment, state assessment, district assessment, digital assessment, continuous assessment, common assessment, etc… Literally anything could be considered an “assessment” when you are gathering data. Assessments are not anything new; they have always been, and should always be, a part of every teacher’s toolkit. We have to know where our students are, in relation to the material that we are teaching, in order to best target the learning.

Although the act of assessing a student can be as simple as asking a student a verbal check for understanding, in recent years the term “assessment” has developed a bad reputation. In the US there has been uproar that we are “over-assessing” our students and many are calling for restrictions on the amount that we assess students. While people may have had a bad experience with a particular assessment or group of assessments, we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Speaking with such vague generalities is confusing the issue. Regular assessment and data are not inherently bad—although some would lead you to believe that they are.

Assessments and data are essential, but they can be tainted when the administration doesn’t align with why the assessment was meant to happen. The problem isn’t that we are over-assessing, it’s that we aren’t always clear WHY we are assessing and therefore, aren’t ensuring the how and what follow appropriately.

Julia Sweeney_Data

Let’s not waste our time waging a war on data, or focusing our energy on attacking specific assessment providers, let’s instead take the time to reflect on assessment practices in our schools. Let’s discuss the why behind assessments and then make sure we align our how and what.

Using the Start With Why book and Ted Talk by Simon Sinek as our inspiration, we started our recent Professional Development event with a Michigan school district with an exploration into their why regarding assessments. The session sought to help their school district develop common assessments to measure student learning and develop ways to respond to the data. Often times when people think about developing assessments, they immediately think about scheduling and the form the assessment will take. That approach doesn’t start with why and will lead you to question whether these assessments were “successful.” You have to know what it is that you want, in order to know whether you’ve gotten it. So, we started with what they wanted in assessments–we started with their why.

Screen Shot 2016-01-28 at 1.59.01 PMWe had the coaches begin by thinking through the various rationales behind assessment. Coaches evaluated some potential reasons for assessment, by considering statements like:


  • We assess to provide students feedback.
  • We assess to hold teachers accountable.
  • We assess to inform our instructional decisions.


From there, groups collaborated to identify the three biggest reasons they want to assess student learning. Once we had a clear picture of why we were creating assessments, then we could better ask and answer questions about how we create and administer assessments, and THEN coaches could start developing assessments (or creating the structures to have assessments developed).

The schools and districts that I support, in their creation of common assessments on Edcite, have a much healthier relationship with data when they have a clear understanding of why they assess students. The problem isn’t the assessment; the problem is, that too often, we don’t know why we are doing it.

If you would like more information about the Professional Development events we have done in regards to school and district assessments, please contact me at


  1. Assessing students to find weaknesses within the standards that are expected in the 21st century will ultimately allowed educators to provide intervention to those students that need it. It also allows educators to identify which students have mastered that skill/standard, which then allows that student to move on to new standards or more challenging tasks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s