Reimagining Balanced Assessment Systems

Apr 10, 2024

New Book Provides Guidance for State, District Leaders

Balanced assessment systems are the unicorns of educational assessment. People have been talking about them for over 20 years, but we rarely see them in the wild. Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment, a groundbreaking 2001 publication of the National Research Council, made a compelling case for their need and importance. So why don’t we see more of them in practice?

Because it is hard to design and implement balanced assessment systems in our current policy and practice contexts. The National Academy of Education’s new volume, Reimagining Balanced Assessment Systems, can support state and district leaders in their efforts to create balanced assessment systems. We offer a few highlights here and invite you to join us later this week at the meetings of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the National Council for Measurement in Education (NCME), where we are hosting several presentations.

Balanced Assessment Systems: Where Did We Start?

The push for balance that began more than 20 years ago signified much more than merely increasing the amount of formal testing done in classrooms to equal the weight of state-level tests. Rather, the intention was to fundamentally change the character of classroom assessment practices to make them a part of effective teaching and learning. Advances in learning research prior to 2001 demanded fundamental shifts in the representation of authentic learning goals and processes. That’s even truer today, with the advances in learning science that have occurred since 2001.

At the classroom level, a balanced assessment system will support assessment practices that are thoroughly integrated with day-to-day instructional practices and support deep disciplinary learning. At the level of school districts and states, a balanced assessment system will provide broad aggregate evidence of student attainment to inform policy decisions—including resource allocation.

Balanced assessment systems have been constrained in practice by policy dynamics, conceptual and capacity challenges, and varied interpretations of the meaning of balance. Even though the original vision of Knowing What Students Know called for coherence from the schoolhouse to the state house, the accountability expectations of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002 resulted in an outsized emphasis on state assessments.

That emphasis led to a cluster of unfortunate results, including a proliferation of interim tests, “teaching to the test,” and spending significant time on test preparation and testing “tricks” instead of focusing on curriculum-rich classroom teaching and learning supported by formative assessment practices. All of these activities undermine coherence.

These dynamics were especially evident in historically marginalized communities. We offer a different vision in this new publication, one centered on ambitious and equitable classroom learning environments supported by balanced assessment practices.

Our Updated Conception of Balanced Assessment Systems

Balanced assessment systems must focus on equitable classroom learning, instruction, and assessment environments. By centering the classroom in the development of an assessment system, the components, and practices of such systems are more likely to truly support teaching and learning. Therefore, for assessment systems to be “balanced,” they must support teaching and learning that occurs in the classroom, directly or indirectly.

If assessment systems are to be balanced, they must be grounded in the most up-to-date thinking about human learning and development. Once the design and implementation of balanced systems of assessment shift to supporting equitable and ambitious classroom teaching and learning, assessment designers must consider, “To what degree and in what ways do other assessments in the system support or hinder ambitious and equitable classroom learning environments?”

An Overview of Reimagining Balanced Assessment Systems

We hope to provide a roadmap for developing, implementing, and using balanced assessment systems to support ambitious and equitable teaching and learning. The chapters document prior struggles in implementing balanced assessment systems, expound on the theoretical underpinnings of human learning and development and situate the work of balanced assessment systems within classrooms supporting ambitious and equitable teaching and learning with robust assessment literacy and professional learning for educators. At the same time, we recognize the critical roles of schools, districts, and states in establishing and supporting balanced assessment systems.

We also included chapters that will help education leaders think about how to develop, implement, and institutionalize the complex educational innovation that balanced assessment systems represent, as well as provide critical lessons for enacting policies to promote balanced assessment systems.

While the chapters are individually authored, the steering committee, chapter authors, and additional chapter reviewers (including representatives from state and district offices) spent significant time working together to outline the volume, review the chapters, and ensure that the entire volume provided a roadmap for developing balanced assessment systems centered on ambitious and equitable teaching and learning.

Our renewed call for balanced assessment systems was motivated by the desire to enhance the utility of assessments for improving learning and instruction, monitoring, accountability, and evaluation purposes. We hope that you find it useful in your efforts to support student learning.

Presentations at NCME and AERA

If you plan to be in Philadelphia for the annual AERA and NCME meetings, consider joining us for the following sessions:

Friday, April 12,  1:15 to 2:45 ET

NCME: Toward Balanced and Equitable Assessment Systems: Considerations for Implementation and Use with Lorrie Shepard, Guillermo Solano-Flores, Amy Berman, Scott Marion, and James Pellegrino

Sunday, April 14, 9:35 to 11:05 ET

AERA: Classroom Assessment and Assessment Literacy Practices to Support Equitable and Ambitious Teaching and Learning with James Pellegrino, Maria Araceli Ruiz-Primo, Erin Marie Furtak, Caroline Wylie, Margaret Heritage, Elena Diaz-Billelo, Jared Anthony, Lorrie Shepard, and Courtney Bell

Sunday, April 14, 11:25 to 12:55 ET

AERA: Toward Balanced Assessment Systems: Considerations for Implementation and Use with Scott Marion, Amy Berman, Donald Peurach, Laura Hamilton, José Felipe Martínez, Carla Evans, Erika Landl, Ajit Gopalakrishnan, and Debbie Durrence