October 15, 2021

By Dr. Amy Jackson

Assessments are an essential part of K–12 education. Without them, teachers, education leaders, and policymakers would be in the dark about critical pieces of the education puzzle—including what students are retaining and where resources can most effectively be allocated to make the greatest impact.

But when district and classroom assessments are administered without focused consideration for how they inform teaching, learning, and decision making, they often wind up constraining, rather than supporting, learning and performance.

That’s why balance in assessment is so vital.

In this blog, I’ll highlight the importance of balance in assessment, describe what a balanced assessment system looks like in practice, and introduce data-driven assessment tools that help you to identify every student’s needs.

What is a comprehensive and balanced assessment system?

A comprehensive and balanced assessment system:

  • Is a cohesive set of high-quality assessment practices and tools
  • Promotes an informed, intentional selection of assessments for the right purpose
  • Supplies all stakeholders with the right information to inform the next best steps

A system is comprehensive when it integrates a complete set of assessment types to appropriately and effectively support teaching and learning.

A system is balanced when those tools are combined with high-quality practices that support the knowledgeable use of each assessment for the right purpose and at the right time—both in isolation and as a holistic system.

In other words, comprehensive is the “what,” and balance is the “how.”

Why is balance in assessment important?

A comprehensive and balanced assessment system equips educators in every role across a district with the right…

  • Assessment tools
  • Practices; and
  • Resources

…to support all learners. Balanced assessment systems are important because they:

  • Allow teachers to link assessments to clearly defined learning targets
  • Provide multiple sources of data to support decision making
  • Document student progress and growth over time

In other words, rather than assessments being designed and implemented independently of one another, they must work together. Each assessment must be an appropriate tool for supporting its intended purpose, while also working with other assessments to meet the overall goal of the assessment system.

In order to make efficient and equitable decisions around instruction and intervention, educators must first understand the specific strengths and needs of the individual learner. Moreover, this information must be obtained with specificity, accuracy, and efficiency so that the right action can be taken at each turn throughout the school year.

It is through the effective application of tools in a balanced assessment system that we are able to understand, monitor, and promote student growth—in terms of both academics and social-emotional behavior (SEB)—and to respond with equitable supports.

Therefore, educators need a cohesive system that enables them to use the right assessment at the right time and for the right reason, as well as a strong culture of using data to take appropriate action. In order to help all students grow throughout the year, districts and schools must have a comprehensive system that is focused on balance in assessment.

young girl raising hand in class

6 tenets of balance in assessment

Although it’s important to have the right tools, simply having these tools isn’t enough—it comes down to how we use them throughout the year. In fact, the ways in which the assessments are used are what make the system not only comprehensive but also balanced.

Let’s take a look at six principles found in a balanced assessment system.

#1: Focuses on purpose

Most importantly, balance in an assessment system is rooted in purpose. A balanced assessment system is marked by the intentional usage of assessment tools for their intended purpose, thoughtfully and to a specific end.

As The Aspen Institute affirms, “Few assessments or assessment systems can serve more than two or three purposes well, and they tend to work best when the various purposes have been prioritized explicitly.” It goes on to warn educators that if an assessment is intended to “fulfill too many purposes—especially disparate purposes—it rarely fulfills any purpose well.”

Secondly, balance in assessment extends articulations of purpose to include how each assessment will be used, including asking the questions:

  • What data will they produce?
  • Which decisions will they inform?
  • Which actions will the results put into motion?

#2: Fosters alignment

Balance in assessment promotes alignment in a variety of forms, recalling the Center for Assessment’s balanced assessment tenants of:

  • Coherence
  • Continuity
  • Comprehensiveness

Assessments should be aligned with each other and complementary in terms of purpose and use, without duplicative assessments.

Designing a Comprehensive Assessment System, a brief from WestEd, affirms that the power of such a system is that it is structurally capable of providing the right information at the…

  • Student
  • Class
  • Grade
  • School; and
  • District

… levels, and is able to yield both granular and high-level insights for educators in every role.

A balanced assessment system also supports alignment between:

  • Instruction
  • Curriculum
  • Assessment

The Center for Assessment advises that in order to have balance, “assessment at all levels would be linked back to the same underlying model of student learning.” In other words, the right assessments are thoughtfully woven into instructional practices, paced according to the district’s scope and sequence, and assess students’ skills at the correct Depth of Knowledge (DOK) and level of rigor.

#3: Ensures quality

Balance in assessment requires that a system consists of high-quality assessment tools that are both valid and reliable:

  • Validity is the extent to which a test or item accurately measures the construct, skill, or domain it purports to measure.
  • Reliability means that the assessment’s results are statically stable and consistent across many administrations.

Balanced assessment systems require assessments composed of high-quality, culturally-responsive items. If either is missing, the assessment system’s quality is depreciated, leading to decisions being made based on untrustworthy data.

FutureEd affirms that high-quality assessments in support of student learning matter now more than ever. Using these tools to guide instruction helps ensure that decisions are not based on misconceptions, implicit biases, or faulty data.

#4: Promotes equity

To achieve true balance in assessment, a system must empower educators to monitor the growth of all students and identify when certain needs are not being addressed. The WestEd brief mentioned earlier notes that when done well, assessment systems yield necessary information for…

  • Educators
  • Families
  • The community; and
  • Students

…to measure progress and increase achievement.

This means that balance in assessment enables educators to carefully monitor groups of students—including those who are systematically disadvantaged—to ensure that they are receiving the support they need to succeed and make growth at expected rates.

A balanced assessment system should also help educators to avoid perpetuating unfair learning trajectories and making assumptions based on implicit biases. It is important that student needs are understood and not assumed, and balanced assessment systems provide the practices needed to do so.

teen studying

#5: Reinforces assessment literacy

A balanced assessment system supports and is supported by educators’ assessment literacy, which can be defined as an understanding of fundamental assessment concepts and procedures and the skills needed to create assessments and analyze data with fidelity.

The Center for Assessment suggests that developing the assessment literacy of educators and leaders is critical to the design and implementation of high-quality balanced systems. It adds that the onus for doing so should be with the district so that assessment literacy can be anchored in the district’s unique assessment system.

As educators rely on assessment data to make key instructional decisions, deep assessment literacy is essential.

#6: Provides clarity

In a balanced assessment system, assessment data are reported in a way that makes the next steps clear for all educators, even those with limited training.

Data are not inherently valuable—it’s what we do with the data that matters.

If we do not understand the data we receive or struggle to translate it into specific next steps, data essentially does nothing positive or productive. Balance in assessment requires a system that consists of assessment tools with targeted reporting for the specific task at hand.

Renaissance: Supporting comprehensive and balanced assessment

At Renaissance, we support schools and districts with:

Connect with an expert to learn more about Renaissance assessment and analytics tools to support a comprehensive and balanced system for pre-K–grade 12 learners.

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