Expert Viewpoint

Putting Data Into Action: 8 Questions for Educators on Effective Use of Assessments

An NWEA Research Scientist on What Educators Should Consider and Understand When Choosing and Using Assessments

As school districts consider their assessment processes, it’s important to make sure assessments are being used appropriately to support academic recovery. This fall, K–12 educators across the country will be facing a myriad of challenges as they work to help students rebound from the pandemic’s impacts on student learning.

While there are some early signs of academic rebounding, research shows that there is still a need for sustained urgency to address interruptions to learning. Making sure data is being used to drive change in schools is more important than ever.

With the current challenges and the urgency of helping students, using assessments appropriately will be a key part of academic recovery. When used appropriately, assessments provide valuable, actionable information that can help districts make more informed decisions. Classrooms can also be made more equitable and responsive when instructional practices are influenced by quality data.

On the other hand, when assessments are used inappropriately, they can create unnecessary stress or burdens for educators. For many teachers, seeing a long list of assessments without clear guidance on the purpose or use of each can be frustrating. After an assessment, the data that is gathered needs to be put into action to change practices for an assessment to be used effectively.

As districts consider their assessment processes and how they will be used to support student learning, asking questions, and determining the goals for an assessment can help. Building and maintaining a balanced assessment system is essential for schools, but the process can be complicated. School district leaders want to make sure they’re using and administering formative, interim, and summative assessments at the right times and in appropriate ways.

The following eight questions can help with guiding discussions and building assessment systems that support student learning. Asking and answering these questions will help ensure that your assessments are properly used to provide actionable data that can help support student learning.

8 Questions Educators Should Ask About Assessments

  1. What is the purpose of this assessment? An assessment’s purpose includes both the intentions of the designers who created it, as well as the district’s intentions in selecting it. To understand what a given assessment is meant to do, carefully review the materials that accompany it and any pertinent communications from the district. If you are not clear, ask questions. The right questions can help you and those around you to fully understand what an assessment is designed to accomplish.
  2. What does that purpose mean for how I should use this assessment? In contrast to an assessment’s purpose, its use refers to the real-world utilization of an assessment by teachers, specialists, administrators, or others in the district. With numerous stakeholders doing different things to help students learn, no single assessment is going to meet everyone’s needs. To understand how an assessment might be useful to you, discuss it with those around you who use it.
  3. Is there a disconnect between an assessment’s purpose and use? When the way an assessment is used runs contrary to how it was intended to be used, that’s a major red flag. For example, if a formative assessment is being used for grading, this disconnect between purpose and use can interfere with students’ motivation to learn, it can reproduce existing inequities, and it can be confusing for students and families. It also can lead us to make poorly supported decisions that ultimately inhibit learning. Once you’ve identified an assessment’s purposes and uses, compare them side by side to ensure that they are aligned.
  4. What resources do I need to use this assessment for its intended purpose? Sometimes we can’t use an assessment for its intended purpose because other elements of a teaching and learning strategy get in the way. For example, a teacher focused on a strict scope and sequence for instruction for every student may have difficulty using an interim assessment like MAP Growth to differentiate instruction based on students’ individual learning needs. Look for a match between an assessment’s intended purpose and your teaching and learning strategies, and advocate for change where other policies, procedures, and common practices prevent you from using high-quality assessments to their full potential.
  5. What can this assessment provide to our school that other assessments cannot? Different assessments are better at different things. Formative assessment processes are ideal for proposing evidence of student learning in the moment and supporting students in becoming self-directed learners. Interim assessments like MAP Growth help teachers identify student needs across a content area, help teachers and administrators gauge progress toward learning goals, and help predict performance on state-mandated assessments. Purposeful summative assessments allow students to demonstrate what they’ve learned, while providing administrators with important information about student learning overall. When choosing new assessments, start by examining the gaps in your current assessment strategy. Seeing those gaps clearly will help you identify the types of assessments you may need in the future.
  6. How will my students understand and use this assessment? Students react to the assessment process in many different ways. Many students relish the challenge of demonstrating what they know, and they welcome opportunities to improve on their past performance. For other students, however, assessments can trigger fear, self-doubt, frustration, or even panic. These students may not understand how the assessments will be used, and they might even worry about how the assessment will reflect on them as individuals. How you talk to students about their assessment results and use them in instruction plays a big role in whether their experience is positive or negative.
  7. How can I talk to students’ families about the purpose and uses of this assessment? Families are among the most important stakeholders in the assessment process. However, because a student’s caretakers can’t sit in your classroom every day (and you probably wouldn’t want them to), they need other sources of information about how their child is doing and what they can do to support their learning. Make sure that families have what they need to prepare their students for assessments, understand the data they see from assessments, and build skills alongside their student over time.
  8. How will this assessment support student learning? The more you know your assessment tools, triangulate data between assessments, and provide students with the support they need to do their best, the more helpful assessments will be in meeting your most critical needs as an educator.

While there are some early signs of academic rebounding, there is still a long road to recovery ahead. Using assessments appropriately to drive change will be a key part of helping students and addressing inequities in K–12 schools.

As we move forward, the effective use of assessments — and intentionally designing processes that consider the purpose and use of each assessment — will be an important part of the work to help students. Asking these questions early in the process can help with determining the best ways to use formative, interim, and summative assessments. This also can help schools and districts make sure that assessments are being used in valuable and meaningful ways to support student learning and ultimately, better student outcomes.

About the Author

Chase Nordengren is the principal research scientist for Effective Instructional Strategies at NWEA, a nonprofit educational services organization serving K–12 students. His research includes the development and execution of needs assessment and program evaluation services; supporting school improvement processes; and thought leadership on formative assessment and student goal-setting practices. He holds a Ph.D. in leadership, policy, and organizations in K–12 systems from the University of Washington, and he is the author of “Step into Student Goal Setting: A Path to Growth, Motivation, and Agency,” published in early 2022 by Corwin Press.