Skip over navigation
Visit the NCREL Home Page

Critical Issue: Integrating Assessment and Instruction in Ways That Support Learning

Pathways Home

ISSUE: Assessment results have important implications for instruction. The primary aim of assessment is to foster learning of worthwhile academic content for all students (Wolf, Bixby, Glenn, & Gardner, 1991). School communities use assessment results in a formative way to determine how well they are meeting instructional goals and how to alter curriculum and instruction so that goals can be better met. But unless the content of assessment (what schools assess) and the format of assessment (how schools assess) match what is taught and how it is taught, the results are meaningless, if not potentially harmful. The same is true if assessment tools are not of high quality. There's also potential for harm when decisions affecting students' futures are being made based on results of assessments made with tools that are not appropriate for the purpose.

Charlotte Higuchi's PictureCharlotte Higuchi, third and fourth grade teacher at Farmdale Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, talks about the connection between assessment and instruction. Excerpted from the videoseries, Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #4, Alternatives for Measuring Performance (NCREL, 1991). [Audio Comment, 135K]. A text version is available.

OVERVIEW: Changes in the workplace are likely to accelerate as we enter the 21st century. The need for schools to keep pace with these changes has resulted in a massive curriculum reform movement. School communities are establishing new goals so that students will learn the skills and competencies needed to succeed in today's workplace; often communities include the skills of reasoning, problem solving, and working collaboratively. To meet these goals, schools are providing students with learning experiences that are more authentic. If schools want an accurate appraisal of how well they are helping students achieve goals, they must make changes in assessment that reflect the changes in curriculum and instruction. The connection between curriculum reform and the need for changes in assessment is considered in more detail in the critical issue "Rethinking Assessment and Its Role in Supporting Educational Reform."

In their attempts to change assessment to match the content and format of instruction, some schools are relying more upon what is known as alternative assessment. Performance-based assessment, portfolios, student-designed assessments, etc., are regarded by many educators as more reflective of new curricular goals and methods of instruction. Some educators view alternative assessment as a better way to determine how well students are learning (and how effective instruction is) than traditional forms of assessment like multiple choice tests.

Charlotte Higuchi's PictureCharlotte Higuchi, third and fourth grade teacher at Farmdale Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, talks about sharing performance based assessment results with students and parents. Excerpted from the videoseries, Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #4, Alternatives for Measuring Performance (NCREL, 1991). [Slide Show, 423K]. A text version is available.

The selection or design of particular forms of assessment depends partly on the specific purpose for assessing. Assessment's overall aim is to foster learning of worthwhile academic content for all students, and the most direct way that assessment serves this purpose is through its role in making decisions about curriculum and teaching. But schools have other purposes for assessment results. Often assessment results are used to assign students to certain groups or strands, and to determine if they should be promoted or graduated. Results of many assessments are used to determine student grades and to report student progress to parents, the principal, or other teachers (Crooks, 1988). Results of some assessments may be used to hold schools accountable to the public.

Alternative forms of assessment might best serve some of these purposes while more traditional forms could still serve others. Regardless of the purpose, however, the form of assessment used must reflect the content to be mastered and must be of high technical quality. The quality of information provided by classroom assessments is considered in more detail under the critical issues of "Designing or Selecting Appropriate Assessment Tasks" and "Ensuring the Technical Quality of Alternative Assessments."

The most important factors in determining technical quality are the reliability, validity, and fairness of classroom assessments. If the quality of an assessment is not ensured, grouping practices, and coverage and pacing decisions may be based on invalid estimates of students' capabilities. For example, sometimes grouping decisions reflect or reinforce racial and socioeconomic inequities, or the decisions might be based on prior achievement that was artificially low due to past limited opportunities to learn. In addition, grouping and pacing decisions based on test results are unfair if all students have not had an equal opportunity to learn.

Poor decision can also be made if attention is not paid to appropriateness of the form of assessment for the intended purpose of the assessment.



IMPLEMENTATION PITFALLS: Alternative forms of assessment require knowledge and skills which most teachers have not had the opportunity to learn. Providing teachers with time for learning is essential to making changes in assessment practices that will support learning. Teachers will also need time to produce and implement the assessments. And, because integrating instruction and assessment requires coordination, teachers will need time to work with one another to share ideas and reach consensus. Because it requires adequate time to implement, alternative assessment will not be effective if it is an added responsibility for teachers. Priorities need to be rearranged so that teachers can spend less time on some things and more time on assessment.

Charlotte Higuchi's PictureCharlotte Higuchi, third and fourth grade teacher at Farmdale Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, talks about the complexity of using performance based assessments. Excerpted from the videoseries, Schools That Work: The Research Advantage, videoconference #4, Alternatives for Measuring Performance (NCREL, 1991). [Slide Show, 468K]. A text version is available.

Teachers will also need to work together to create a school environment that values good assessment practices. Conflict can result from implementing alternative forms of assessment in a school that is heavily dependent on traditional forms of instruction and assessment.

DIFFERENT POINTS OF VIEW: Some fear that placing too much emphasis on any form of assessment will result in educators "teaching to the test." In other words, when assessment results are used to make important decisions, there is a danger that instruction will narrowly focus on what is assessed while other important curricular goals and content are neglected (Romberg, Zarinnia, & Williams, 1989). All assessments include only a sample of the total content contained within a curriculum. Critics of multiple-choice tests, for example, suggest that the skills usually assessed by multiple-choice testing - the acquisition of factual information and the simple application of that information - became the focus of instruction at the expense of more substantial content. Alternative assessment attempts to remedy this situation by ensuring that the content of the assessment matches the most important content in the curriculum. But regardless of how much the content of an assessment is improved, when teachers narrowly focus on what is tested, the assessment results will only reveal the students' learning of the test content, not whether they could perform a related task in a different environment. For example, if instruction is focused on a skill that is a test requirement - such as writing a persuasive essay - the results of the test will reflect only the students' performance on this type of writing, not his/her general writing ability. This limitation is primarily a concern in one-shot, large-scale district or state testing situations where important decisions are based on a limited sample of student performance. In a classroom setting, teachers can continually assess student work over a long period without relying on the results of a single assessment.


The Vermont Portfolio Project

Thinker Tools II Project

The Key School and the Key Renaissance School, Indianapolis, Indiana

Measuring Up: Prototypes for Mathematics Assessment

Performance Assessment Sampler: A Workbook


Assessment Training Institute
50 S.W. Second Ave, Suite 300
Portland, OR 97204-2636
Contact: Rick Stiggins

Grant Wiggins & Associates
4095 US Route 1 - Suite 104
Monmouth Junction, NJ 08852
732.329.0641 , Fax: 732.438.9527
Contact: Grant Wiggins

Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST)
UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies
405 Hilgard Avenue
1320 Moore Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1522
310-206-1532, Fax: 310-825-3883
Contact: Joan Herman e-mail:

A Teacher's Solution
RR1 Box 7390
Underhill, VT 05489

Laboratory Network Project
Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory
101 S.W. Main Street, Suite 500
Portland, OR 97204
503-275-9500, Fax: 503-275-9489
Contact: Judy Arter

Michigan Education Assessment Program (MEAP)
Michigan Department of Education
608 W. Allegan
Lansing, MI 48909
Phone: 517-373-8393
Fax: 517-335-1186
Contact: Peggy Dutcher, Assessment Consultant (

National Council of Teachers of English
1111 Kenyon Road
Urbana, IL 61801-1096
217-328-3870, Fax: 217-328-0977
Contact: John Chero

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
1906 Association Drive
Reston, VA 22091-1593
703-620-9840, Fax: 703-476-2970

Washtenaw Intermediate School District
1819 S. Wagner Road
Ann Arbor, MI 48106
Contact: Marge Maskic (ext. 1121)


This Critical Issue Summary was researched and written by Andrew Porter, director, Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

Date posted: 1995
Copyright © North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer and copyright information.