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Literacy assessment


John Frederikson and Alan Collins, two nationally recognized assessment experts, remind us why we engage in assessment. Although assessment is used for many different purposes and comes in many different forms, all assessment should help us become better teachers and should help our students become more accomplished learners. Assessment should not simply monitor achievement or report scores. Whether we are assessing to report to others or for ourselves, whether we are using standardized tests or portfolios, assessment should lead to instructional action. In the past, this goal was often lost. Today, measurement experts, policy makers, administrators, and teachers recognize the importance of meaningful, useful assessment, and they are working together to create new approaches to it.

The Changing Picture of Assessment

Assessment used to be viewed as formal tests, usually multiple-choice, selected by school districts or state administrators, and given to students once or several times a year. The purpose was to obtain information that could be easily reported to the public, school boards, administrators, and parents. Obviously, such assessment had limited potential to influence teaching and learning in a positive way. It was something separate and different from normal classroom life, and it often tested lower-level skills and concepts that were easy to test, rather than more complex, and often more significant, aspects of the curriculum. In addition, the information from these traditional assessments was most often reported as a number, which was not useful for determining what students knew or what teachers needed to do to help them learn. Other information gathered by teachers was not considered valid assessment; it was thought of as the teachers’ anecdotal observations or the students’ papers or classroom work. Students were the object of assessment, the people who were tested, rather than collaborators — or even recipients of the information.

Fortunately, in the past ten years we have witnessed a revolution in assessment, one that has finally taken hold in classrooms, schools, districts, states, and the nation (Office of Technology Assessment, 1992; Pelavin, 1991). As a result, the definition of assessment has been expanded in two important ways:

  • Assessment is acknowledged to have many different purposes and audiences. For example, assessments are used to qualify students for special services; to report to school boards, states, and parents; to evaluate program effectiveness; to monitor student learning and adjust teaching strategies; to evaluate students’ growth over time; to engage students in self-evaluation; and to understand students’ strengths and needs. Each of these different purposes and audiences may require different kinds of assessment and different types of information (Farr, 1992; Haney, 1991; Office of Technology Assessment, 1992; Pearson & Valencia, 1987). One type of assessment cannot meet the needs of all audiences. Administrators, for example, want to know about school programs or large groups of students. They might need that information only once or a couple of times a year and might not be concerned with individual students’ strengths and needs. Teachers, parents, and students need more specific information and need it more often. By understanding different purposes and choosing different assessments to fit these purposes, we are more likely to discover information that will enhance teaching and learning (Hiebert & Calfee, 1989; Linn, Baker & Dunbar, 1991; Pearson & Valencia, 1987). 
  • The importance of classroom-based assessment has been recognized, giving it a central position in all assessment discussions (Hiebert & Calfee, 1989). Classroom-based assessment is closest to actual learning and to children; therefore, it is most likely to influence instructional decisions and to engage children in evaluation of their own work. It is more specific to individual children and to instruction, and it occurs more frequently than formal norm-referenced testing. When assessment and instruction are melded, both teachers and students become learners. Teachers become more focused on what and how to teach, and students become more self-directed, motivated, and focused on learning (Graue, 1993; Wolf, 1989). Classroom assessment puts teachers and children in charge of assessment. Consequently, it is our responsibility to understand the elements of good classroom-based assessment and how to put them into action.

A complete assessment system is responsive to these audiences and purposes, and it values classroom-based assessment as a major component of the system. It includes a balance of formal normative tests that help teachers and administrators know how students are performing compared to other students across the nation or the state; formal assessments published in conjunction with instructional programs that help teachers and students know how well students are learning; informal classroom work samples, performances, and observations that help teachers and students evaluate the application of skills to everyday learning; and student self-assessment that helps students become self-directed learners.

What Is Authentic Assessment?

Authentic assessment refers to assessment tasks that resemble reading and writing in the real world and in school (Hiebert, Valencia & Afflerbach, 1994; Wiggins, 1993). Its aim is to assess many different kinds of literacy abilities in contexts that closely resemble actual situations in which those abilities are used. For example, authentic assessments ask students to read real texts, to write for authentic purposes about meaningful topics, and to participate in authentic literacy tasks such as discussing books, keeping journals, writing letters, and revising a piece of writing until it works for the reader. Both the material and the assessment tasks look as natural as possible. Furthermore, authentic assessment values the thinking behind work, the process, as much as the finished product (Pearson & Valencia, 1987; Wiggins, 1989; Wolf, 1989).

Working on authentic tasks is a useful, engaging activity in itself; it becomes an “episode of learning” for the student (Wolf, 1989). From the teacher’s perspective, teaching to such tasks guarantees that we are concentrating on worthwhile skills and strategies (Wiggins, 1989). Students are learning and practicing how to apply important knowledge and skills for authentic purposes. They should not simply recall information or circle isolated vowel sounds in words; they should apply what they know to new tasks. For example, consider the difference between asking students to identify all the metaphors in a story and asking them to discuss why the author used particular metaphors and what effect they had on the story. In the latter case, students must put their knowledge and skills to work just as they might do naturally in or out of school.

Performance assessment is a term that is commonly used in place of, or with, authentic assessment. Performance assessment requires students to demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and strategies by creating a response or a product (Rudner & Boston, 1994; Wiggins, 1989). Rather than choosing from several multiple-choice options, students might demonstrate their literacy abilities by conducting research and writing a report, developing a character analysis, debating a character’s motives, creating a mobile of important information they learned, dramatizing a favorite story, drawing and writing about a story, or reading aloud a personally meaningful section of a story. For example, after completing a first-grade theme on families in which students learned about being part of a family and about the structure and sequence of stories, students might illustrate and write their own flap stories with several parts, telling a story about how a family member or friend helped them when they were feeling sad.

The formats for performance assessments range from relatively short answers to long-term projects that require students to present or demonstrate their work. These performances often require students to engage in higher-order thinking and to integrate many language arts skills. Consequently, some performance assessments are longer and more complex than more traditional assessments. Within a complete assessment system, however, there should be a balance of longer performance assessments and shorter ones.

Why Is It Important to Align Instruction and Assessment?

Authentic assessment is aligned with the curriculum. It assesses what we teach and what we value (Stiggins, 1994; Valencia, 1990; Wiggins, 1989). Deciding the important outcomes is not always easy, but it is a critical first step in creating authentic assessments. There are many helpful resources for teachers: state and district curriculum guides, published instructional materials, national standards documents, and professional colleagues (Au, 1994; Valencia & Place, 1994).

When assessment is aligned with instruction, both students and teachers benefit. Students are more likely to learn because instruction is focused and because they are assessed on what they are taught. Teachers are also able to focus, making the best use of their time. Because assessment involves real learning, they can integrate assessment into daily instruction and classroom activities. For example, if students are studying a unit on natural disasters, reading accounts of the experiences, and learning about cause and effect, the assessment might include reading about a different catastrophe or writing a research report on how it occurs.

Why Does Assessment Need to Be Ongoing?

Most educators would agree that authentic assessment must include more than a “one-shot” evaluation. Important decisions should be based on more than one sample of a student’s abilities. Furthermore, complex outcomes often require several assessment tasks so that students can demonstrate their understandings in a variety of contexts (Hiebert & Calfee, 1989).

More important, however, is that ongoing assessment makes visible, and values, growth over time. Instead of focusing solely on achievement, both achievement and growth are considered important. For example, imagine a struggling fourth-grade student. When she entered fourth grade she knew only a few sight words, used consonants and context to decode unknown words, and enjoyed reading predictable first-grade books. At the end of the year, portfolio evidence of running records, audiotapes, book logs, observation checklists, and teacher conferences indicates that she can independently read narrative and informational books at the third-grade level. Her word identification strategies now include word families, word parts, and vowel sounds, as well as context and an expanded repertoire of sight words. She still enjoys reading and has broadened her selections beyond predictable books. Ongoing assessment provides valuable information about the progress of this struggling learner. Although she still is not performing like average fourth-grade students, we have evidence of her growth.

Portfolios are particularly useful for ongoing assessment (Valencia, 1990; Wolf, 1989). They provide concrete evidence to document growth over time. They help students, teachers, and parents celebrate individual students’ accomplishments, regardless of how they compare to other children or to grade-level expectations. In addition, using ongoing assessment can improve teaching and learning by providing timely feedback. When students and teachers frequently assess how well they are doing, they can adjust instruction, effort, and practice. The potential to succeed is enhanced.

What Are the Different Forms of Authentic Assessment?

If assessment is authentic, ongoing, and integrated with classroom instruction, then it is easy to see that it will take many different forms (Stiggins, 1994; Valencia, 1990). Some assessments are more formal, others more informal.

Formal Assessment
Some formal assessments provide teachers with a systematic way to evaluate how well students are progressing in a particular instructional program. For example, after completing a four- to six-week theme, teachers will want to know how well students have learned the theme skills and concepts. They may give all the students a theme test in which students read, answer questions, and write about a similar theme concept. This type of assessment allows the teacher to evaluate all the students systematically on the important skills and concepts in the theme by using real reading and writing experiences that fit with the instruction. In other situations, or for certain students, teachers might use a skills test to examine specific skills or strategies taught in a theme.

Teachers, parents, and administrators might want to know how well students are reading and writing in general, independent of the specific instructional program. This requires a different type of formal assessment. Sometimes, school districts use a standardized norm-reference test or a state test that is administered to only certain grade levels or only once a year. Other times, teachers want similar information, but would like some flexibility in when and how often they conduct the assessment. For example, they might want to know how well students are reading and writing at the beginning, middle, and end of the year compared with other children at the same grade level. This type of benchmark or anchor test helps teachers determine how well students are progressing over the entire year, and it provides useful information to parents and administrators. Two points of comparison are available, the student’s growth over time, and the student’s performance as compared with his or her grade-level peers.

Because this type of formal classroom assessment is more flexible than traditional norm-referenced tests, teachers can use out-of-level tests to determine student progress. If specific students are performing far below or above grade level, the teacher can give the assessment that best fits with students’ needs. In addition, the flexibility allows the teacher to observe students closely as they work and to modify the assessment as needed.

Informal Assessment
Other forms of authentic assessment are more informal, including special activities such as group or individual projects, experiments, oral presentations, demonstrations, or performances. Some informal assessments may be drawn from typical classroom activities such as assignments, journals, essays, reports, literature discussion groups, or reading logs. Other times, it will be difficult to show student progress using actual work, so teachers will need to keep notes or checklists to record their observations from student-teacher conferences or informal classroom interactions. Sometimes informal assessment is as simple as stopping during instruction to observe or to discuss with the students how learning is progressing. Any of these types of assessment can be made more formal by specifying guidelines for what and how to do them, or they can be quite informal, letting students and teachers adjust to individual needs. In some situations, the teacher will want all students to complete the same assessments; in others, assessments will be tailored to individual needs. All present good assessment opportunities.

It is important to use a variety of forms of assessment. For some students, written work is difficult, so too much reliance on it will put them at a disadvantage. Similarly, particular activities or topics will inspire excellent performance in some students and frustrate others. Including a variety of types of assessments will ensure that students are provided with ample opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and that teachers have the information they need to construct a complete, balanced assessment of each student.

Why Is Student Self-Assessment Important?

Now that so much assessment is situated in daily classroom life, there are numerous opportunities to engage students in the assessment process. They can compare their work over time, create evaluation criteria for a project, discuss their strategies for reading difficult texts, work with peers to evaluate and revise a piece of writing, and judge their reading preferences and habits by reviewing their reading journals. When students are collaborators in assessment, they develop the habit of self-reflection. They learn the qualities of good work, how to judge their work against these qualities, how to step back from their work to assess their own efforts and feelings of accomplishment, and how to set personal goals (Reif, 1990; Wolf, 1989). These are qualities of self-directed learners, not passive learners. As teachers model, guide, and provide practice in self-assessment, students learn that assessment is not something apart from learning or something done to them, but a collaboration between teachers and students, and an integral part of how they learn and improve.

Authentic Classroom Assessment in Action: Ms. Rodriguez’s Classroom

Below are three “snapshots” of Ms. Rodriguez’s fourth-grade class from the beginning, middle, and end of the school year. Following each is a synopsis of how she is using the principles of good authentic assessment.


    Ms. Rodriguez begins the school year with twenty-eight children. Seven are new to the school and to the community; twelve are second-language learners. She needs to gather some initial information about her students. During the first two weeks of school, she has conferences with the children who have portfolios from last year, reviewing their work and discussing reading and writing interests and goals with them. She also has brief conferences with the other children, finding out about their experiences and interests.

At the same time, she has all the children participate in a mini-theme, a beginning of the year warm-up unit. The students read, discuss, and write about an authentic piece of literature, Hurray for Ali Baba Bernstein by Johanna Hurwitz. Ms. Rodriguez engages the students in discussions about the story, characters, and plot, focusing on the clues and the inferences the characters made to solve the mystery. She explores various reading strategies with the students, discussing their strategies and watching them apply strategies as they read. They talk about which theme activities were interesting, easy, or difficult and why. Students also complete a short writing activity related to their reading. During this week-long theme, Ms. Rodriguez observes and notes the students’ literacy abilities and work strategies. She also introduces portfolios to her class, drawing from what some students already know about portfolios; they discuss what portfolios are and why they are important. She explains that they will keep all their work from the mini-theme in a collection folder. Later, both she and they will select work from the collections to place in their portfolios.

Ms. Rodriguez uses her mini-theme instructional observations and student work, together with conference information, to determine any additional information she needs for particular children. She reviews the formal assessment materials that accompany her published language arts program and identifies those children who need an individualized informal reading inventory, those who might take a group placement test, and those who need no further special testing. Based on all these sources of information, Ms. Rodriguez develops a plan for her literacy program.

Ms. Rodriguez has implemented several assessment principles within the first two weeks of school. She has used a variety of types of information — informal and formal, individual and group — to help her get to know each child and to plan reading and writing instruction. She has immediately established a collaborative learning and evaluation environment by setting up a portfolio culture and valuing students’ individual interests and goals. She has communicated clearly to students that she and the students will both contribute to the portfolio — both are responsible for assessment. She has also reinforced the concept that assessment is an authentic, ongoing part of classroom life. The work that students do in class will be used to determine how well they are learning important outcomes. They understand too, that reflection on learning is a habit that is valued and nurtured in discussion, assessment, and goal-setting.


    At the beginning of November, Ms. Rodriguez prepares for parent conferences. The collections and portfolios have been well established. She has conducted several minilessons to help the students learn how to review their work, emphasizing personal response as well as work quality. Every two weeks students review their collections to make selections for their portfolios, then take the rest of the collection home. During the last selection time, Ms. Rodriguez asked all the children to place the following items in their portfolios: their reading logs, one of their character studies for the theme, and the planning form they used for the character-skit performance assessment completed at the end of the theme. Ms. Rodriguez has given all the students the end-of-theme test that came with her program, so she includes that in every student’s portfolio as well. As part of the selection process, they discussed as a class what they learned about how authors used interesting beginnings in their stories and how students had practiced using interesting beginnings for their own stories. They also discussed what they had learned about dialogue and using complete sentences. Ms. Rodriguez asked the students to select two pieces of writing for their portfolios, one that was their personal favorite and one that demonstrated a good beginning and use of complete sentences or dialogue. She asked them to include all the rough drafts. She also encouraged them to choose one or two favorite completed activity pages for their portfolios.

Ms. Rodriguez has the students attend and lead a portion of the parent conference. To help the students prepare for the conference, Ms. Rodriguez guides the students in a review of their work, helping them focus on how they have changed as readers and writers and what personal goals they want to work on. She reminds them of how they have been learning to think about their work as they do their class assignments. She has the students spend time analyzing their portfolios. Then they role-play in pairs to explain their most important ideas succinctly. Students also show their parents a few pieces of their work. During the actual conference, the student leads the first ten minutes. Then Ms. Rodriguez joins the discussion, using her notes, checklists, and observations to add her professional insights. The last part of the conference includes only Ms. Rodriguez and the parents to be sure parents’ questions and concerns have been addressed. Ms. Rodriguez uses both formal and informal assessment information that she has assembled to help parents understand their children’s strengths and needs. Some of the work, such as theme tests and some activity pages, is graded; other work, such as reading logs, writing, response journals, and activities, is not. She encourages parents to look closely at the work and to share their own expectations and insights.

Ms. Rodriguez has prepared and enlisted her students as collaborators in assessment. The message is clear to both the students and the parents. She has taught students how to think about and evaluate their own work and requested that they take seriously their responsibility to set personal goals. She also has taken her role seriously by supplementing students’ findings with her own documentation and professional judgment. In addition, the portfolio work is aligned with the instructional emphasis of the recent themes, reading and writing narratives. The work chosen to go in the portfolios is authentic evidence of progress toward this goal. Both process and products of learning are included. Finally, as she did in September, Ms. Rodriguez is relying on multiple, ongoing indicators of student performance.


    In June Ms. Rodriguez prepares for end-of-year assessment, portfolios, and report cards. All the fourth-grade students in the school district completed the state-wide standardized test in April, and those results have been recorded in the students’ permanent records. She is particularly interested, however, in how the students have grown over time and what each student has learned this year. She will use both her formal and informal assessments as she completes end-of-year reports.

Ms. Rodriguez gives an end-of-year benchmark test that comes with her language arts program. She had given one in October and is eager to see her students’ overall growth in reading and writing. She also reviews the theme tests and performance assessment the students have completed to gauge how well students are able to apply the skills and strategies they have learned in the themes. Informal assessments are also very important to Ms. Rodriguez. She reviews her students’ portfolios, as well as her observation checklists, looking closely for specific changes over time. She is especially pleased, for example, about the growth of a second-language learner who could barely speak English in September, but now is reading short chapter books and writing and illustrating stories in English and in his native language. Another student, she notes, has shifted interests from reading and writing fantasy to nonfiction and biographies. A third has developed a strong voice and style in writing, but is still struggling with editing for mechanics.

Because Ms. Rodriguez views assessment as a shared responsibility, she has the students participate in end-of-year evaluation. After consulting with the fifth-grade teachers, she has decided to weed the portfolios, saving a limited number of pieces, and sending the rest home. Ms. Rodriguez identifies several pieces all students should keep in their portfolios. Then she helps the students systematically review their work. During this process, they discuss changes in their reading and writing over the year, using examples from their portfolios. Students individually select five pieces to keep in the portfolio and write letters to next year’s teacher, telling a bit about themselves. Ms. Rodriguez holds a class celebration of students’ accomplishments before the rest of the portfolio work is sent home.

Ms. Rodriguez has again used a combination of formal and informal assessments to evaluate students’ progress. This combination guards against any one piece of evidence carrying too much importance and allows individual differences to be honored. Because Ms. Rodriguez and her students have systematically collected evidence of learning and used their portfolios throughout the year, they have concrete examples of growth and a way to talk about changes in their reading and writing.

The shared responsibility for assessment is confirmed by having both the teacher and student select work to send on to the next grade. The new teacher receives important information about the students’ learning and also gains insight into what individual students value and what they judge to be good work. The celebration acknowledges pride in growth and learning, and it reaffirms the students’ role in the assessment process.

How Can Teachers Become More Effective and Efficient at Classroom-Based Assessment?

The general principles of good assessment and the examples from Ms. Rodriguez’s class provide a starting place for thinking about how to implement a classroom-based assessment system. Here are additional suggestions:

  • Focus assessment on the most important outcomes in the curriculum. Although teachers informally assess every time they interact with students and every time students work on an activity, you do not have to document every interaction or every lesson. Daily lessons and activities are often building blocks or means to more complex goals. Collecting too much information is as problematic as not collecting enough. Determine the most important goals you have for each unit. Select only a few artifacts as your assessment evidence; be sure they are dated. The same is true for anecdotal notes or checklists. Use these judiciously depending on the situation and the particular students. 
  • Be clear about the goals of instruction and make them explicit to the students. For example, if students will be reading about environmental issues and will be asked to take a position, they will need to learn how to distinguish fact from opinion, synthesize information, and draw conclusions. Both you and the students have a better chance of achieving your goals if you make clear to them the relationship between the skills they are learning and the task they are completing. 
  • Make self-assessment a dependable, integral part of your classroom. Begin with non-academic activities, such as judging how well the class is working in groups or discussing favorite artwork. The first of these activities requires students to consider qualities of good performance; the other requires judgments based on personal criteria. Both, however, require students to step back from their work or their behavior to think reflectively. You will need to develop these abilities over time with your students. 
  • Help students understand what good reading and good writing look like by providing them with examples, examining work, reviewing portfolios, and discussing criteria. For example, help the class develop criteria for a good research report or book talk and then have children evaluate their work according to the criteria. Use criteria and scoring rubrics provided with instructional materials with the children instead of using them just for grading. 
  • Schedule portfolio visits with your students. These are times when you and your students can review accumulated portfolio work, stepping back to look at work over time. Sometimes these visits should be collaborative, sometimes independent. By spending time with several portfolios each week, you will be able to keep track of individual students’ progress and to make sure that no students are slipping through the cracks. Use portfolios to celebrate accomplishments as well as to identify needs. In addition, by looking across portfolios, you will be able to analyze your instruction. For example, you will easily identify the kinds of activities on which students are spending most of their time and the kinds of criteria they are using to make their personal portfolio selections. 
  • Use classroom assessments and portfolios to help with grading. You do not need to grade every piece of work or even the portfolio as a whole. The evidence you collect will provide the basis for the grades you assign. Some of the more formal assessments, such as tests, performance activities, and projects, are easier to grade. Other assessments, such as oral discussions, response journals, and rough drafts of writing, are more difficult to grade but still provide useful information. Together, these graded and ungraded artifacts provide strong evidence for your grading decisions. 
  • Begin classroom assessment slowly. It will take time for you and your students to develop a system for using and keeping track of classroom assessment. The time you spend with students organizing and reviewing portfolios or classroom work is time well-spent. Through these activities students learn about qualities of good work.

Final Thoughts

Literacy assessment has changed in purpose, format, and process. Assessments now include more authentic reading and writing tasks, a balanced approach to using formal and informal assessments, greater emphasis on classroom-based evidence and growth over time, and more involvement of students in the evaluation of their own work. These are welcome changes from traditional reading and writing assessments of the past.

Assessment is an integral part of instruction and learning. When assessment is located in the classroom, it has the most immediate value. Through authentic classroom-based assessment, teachers, students, and others can see the real learning and growth that is taking place, and, as a result, teachers and students are able to adjust and refocus teaching and learning. This is why assessment cannot be separated from instruction. With good assessment we can improve instruction, and with good instruction we can improve the achievement of all students.