A Principled Approach to Classroom Assessment During Remote Learning

Sep 09, 2020

When Mary Ann Snider and I wrote in late April, “We can seize this opportunity to create assessment experiences that require students to think deeply and to demonstrate that deep thinking,” we were not thinking that students would be engaged in remote learning again this school year. It’s not that we would alter what we wrote, but now that it is looking like schooling in the U.S. will occur remotely for many students, our advice regarding classroom assessment in a remote context needs to be more comprehensive. Therefore, in this post I draw on the recently-published Classroom Assessment Principles to Support Teaching and Learning to shape our thinking about remote assessment (Shepard, Diaz-Bilello, Penuel, and Marion, 2020).

An Argument for a Principled Approach

Educational measurement specialists are fond of using principles to guide our work. Most notably, various conceptions of principled assessment design (e.g., Evidence-Centered Design) have taken hold in the last 20 years. As part of the 2019 National Council on Measurement in Education Classroom Assessment Conference, we involved dozens of experts and practitioners in crafting guidance for classroom teachers, students, school and district leaders, state education leaders, measurement professionals, subject matter experts, and teacher educators. One might ask why, if the focus is on classroom assessment, we would seek to target so many audiences outside the classroom. Quite simply, these stakeholders play a role in the quality and status of classroom assessment through policies they enact, professional learning they support, and the ways they value classroom assessment information. 

These principles were crafted well before remote instruction was on anyone’s mind, so I was pleased to see, when revisiting this document, how well the Principles apply to our current situation. The challenge to implementing many of the principles will be the same whether schooling is in-person or remote. In fact, several of the principles might be easier to enact in remote settings, while others will be more challenging. My colleagues and I, along with several other experts, will discuss how to apply these principles to support high-quality, remote classroom assessment systems during our upcoming (September 16thwebinar as part of the Center for Assessment’s Reidy Interactive Lecture Series. 

Examining the Advantages and Challenges of Applying a Principled Approach Remotely

I present below several teacher-focused principles as examples for discussing how each might be easier, harder, or about the same to implement remotely. The full document provides greater elaboration and the research backing for all of the principles.

About the same challenge to implement in both remote and in-person learning settings

  • Develop a shared understanding of valued learning goals.

Developing shared learning goals is critical no matter the instructional setting, but it will require more intentionality and thoughtful planning to build a shared learning community with the school year starting out remotely. 

  • Integrate curriculum, instruction, and assessment based on well-founded theories of learning.

Again, enacting this principle is vital no matter the context, but we recognize the shift from social learning environments to more individualized contexts can change the ways in which socio-cultural learning theories are instantiated. Such approaches will look different in remote compared to in-school settings, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Further, there is no substitute for a high-quality curriculum with rich, embedded assessments.

Likely more challenging to implement in both remote compared to in-person settings

  • Engage in instructional practices where students talk with each other around meaningful tasks – as a way to elicit and extend student thinking and to help students learn to listen and support the development of each other’s ideas.

This might be one of the more challenging principles to enact remotely. First, it requires all students to have reasonable bandwidth and workable devices; a non-trivial hurdle. Second, circulating among groups of students or facilitating peer conversations is obviously quite different with 30 students on a webinar compared to a physical classroom. 

  • Develop grading practices that validly reflect intended learning goals and success criteria, while avoiding the use of grades as motivators.

Grading is an ongoing assessment literacy challenge in all contexts. My colleague, Carla Evans, wrote a series of CenterLine posts on the challenges of meaningful grading, in general, and with competency-based education systems specifically. Lorrie Shepard has written extensively about the deleterious effects of typical grading practices. This year presents an opportunity to focus on formative feedback, but will require considerable intentionality on the part of teachers, particularly in terms of dealing with the learning management systems (LMS) that many districts and states are employing. These systems are often set up to turn every assignment or piece of student work into a numerical grade, often with little attention to descriptions of performance and meaningful feedback. Schools and districts employing an LMS will need to guard against the corrupting influence of such systems and find ways for students to share actual, ungraded work to focus on feedback and improvement.

Potentially less challenging to implement in both remote compared to in-person settings

  • Ensure that authentic instructional and assessment tasks are drawn from and connect to life outside of school to enhance both meaning and transfer.

Remote instruction and learning may provide an advantage in enacting this principle. Teachers can engage students more easily, perhaps, in surveying their homes and communities when the students are already learning at home. Enacting this principle should allow teachers to capitalize on the cultural capital of their students to increase the meaningfulness of the tasks and assignments for the class.

  • Foster student agency and self-regulation.

The remote context may enable students to develop their own agency and improve their ability to regulate their own learning. Of course, it will not happen simply because of the remote context. Students will need guidance, multiple opportunities to develop these important skills, and extensive peer, teacher, and caregiver feedback to maximize these opportunities.


There is no question that educators and leaders are facing exhausting challenges in figuring out how to address missed instruction last year, while planning for an uncertain year ahead. Saying that every challenge presents an opportunity sounds trite in these unprecedented times. However, we have no choice because COVID is forcing everyone to think differently. The Principles are a helpful guide, but as I illustrated above, it requires educators to think and act more intentionally to apply these principles to new contexts. 

Carla Evans and colleagues provide many examples for applying these principles to both formative and summative assessment in a set of forthcoming posts.