Rethinking Assessment: A Tool for Learning and Spiritual Formation

What a school decides to measure is particular to each school and expresses what that school community values in the realms of academics, social, physical, and spiritual development. What you measure influences what your students pay attention to. But how we assess carries more subtle and influential implications for our identity in God’s story, because it influences how students see themselves and their God. 

We believe that amidst the growing complexity of assessment vocabulary—formative, summative, diagnostic, interim, performance, standardized—the most important words in assessment are the prepositions: of and for. They define the purpose of the assessment and how it is used. We recognize there is a place for both types of assessments in our schools, but each has implications for learning and for spiritual formation. 

Assessment “OF” Learning

Assessment of learning (sometimes called summative assessment) refers to the assessments we are perhaps most familiar with. Assessment of learning asks the question, “Have students mastered the content and skills expected in this course?” According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, assessment of learning is the “process of collecting and interpreting evidence for the purpose of summarizing learning at a given point in time, to make judgments about the quality of student learning on the basis of established criteria, and to assign a value to represent that quality.” The audience is policy makers, program planners, supervisors, parents, other teachers, or students themselves. It happens after learning has occurred. The teacher’s role is primarily to administer the test carefully, report the results to parents or the district, and in some cases, to create the assessments. Often schools are guided by state standards when it comes to these assessments.

We need to think deeply about the learning experience of students and what are we conveying about God, if assessment of learning is the predominantmethod of measuring student achievement. The student studies everything in the textbook and their notes, hoping they are focusing on material that will be on the test. There’s no way of knowing for sure, and too often little guidance is given in this regard. They take the test, and it is returned to them, wrong answers marked in red. The student breathes a sigh of relief if the score is acceptable; he crumples the test up and tosses it if it is not. No redemption is possible. “I’m just not good at math,” whispers the voice of shame to this despondent one. “You’re a genius!” boasts pride to the “successful” one. Both result in what Carol Dweck refers to as a fixed mindset, which holds that all of us are born good at some things, and not good at others—and there’s nothing we can do to change that.

What image of God does assessment of learning convey? How does it shape the way we understand our relationship with the Creator? God (like the impersonal SAT scorer somewhere in the great beyond) is the “Judge in the Sky” looking down on all our works. We’re not exactly sure what is going to be on the test—probably everything. We stand before Him, trembling on the day of the final exam. “I know I prayed and went to church and we sent our kids to Christian schools. We tithed (most of the time). I did get that divorce, but I wasn’t a Christian then, so maybe it’s OK. Did I study the Bible enough? I never did visit anyone in prison and I usually ignored the homeless. There were all those people at work I never shared the Gospel with. But I did accept Jesus as my personal Savior! Isn’t that enough?” And then it will be thumbs up or thumbs down—dwelling with Him in heaven or… The test is pass/fail. 

As importantly, in the system of assessment of learning, what motivates students to do their work? Grades! Middle and high school teachers lament the predictable chorus that often follows any assignment they present: “Are we going to be graded on this?” “Is it going to be on the test?” “What do I have to do to get an ‘A’?” The prize in assessment of learning is a good grade. And as much as teachers would like to prevent this obsession with grades, a non-graded assignment is code for “this doesn’t really matter.”  Is there a correlation between working to earn good grades in school and trying to earn God’s favor through works in life? We’re not suggesting we do away with grades, but rather to create a culture that runs on godly motivation, not peripheral incentives. Grades should enter like grace, not through the front door of external rewards, but through the back door of work done well as worship. Rightly used, grades are the natural response to our work, not the stimulus. God knows our motivation. God knows what is on the inside, no matter how good we might look to the world. 

Assessment of learning tends to create a system that basically runs on B.F. Skinner’s toolbox of rewards (good grades, awards, parent praise, stickers, pizza parties, etc.) or punishments (bad grades, summer school, parent disapproval, grounding, no video games for a week, etc.). How can we instead use assessment to create a culture of intrinsic motivation, responding to the role God is calling them to in His story? How can we create a school culture that runs on curiosity to learn about the world and discover God in it, or even just the joy of learning something new—fitting another piece into the great puzzle of Creation? We want to build a culture with a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset, where “if I work hard I can get better.” If I make a mistake, I can learn from it. Assessment for learning addresses these questions.

Assessment “FOR” Learning

Assessment for learning (sometimes called formative assessment) comes closest to the original meaning of the word “assessment.” It comes from assidere, Latin for “to sit with.” It suggests the idea of sitting with a piece of student work, appreciating its strengths, identifying ways it could be improved. Assessment for learning serves to promote learning and takes place while the student is still learning. Assessment for learning asks the question, “How can I use assessment to improve student learning?” 

According to the Ontario Ministry of Education, it is the “ongoing process of gathering and interpreting evidence about student learning for the purpose of determining where students are in their learning, where they need to go, and how best to get there.” The audience is students and teachers. The information gathered provides feedback to students to focus their learning and for teachers to adjust instruction. Examples are rubrics, self-assessments, descriptive feedback, and student-led conferences. An important component of assessment for learning is students reflecting on themselves as learners. (Some educators refer to this as assessment as learning). They determine where they are in relation to the learning target and what they need to do to reach it. Assessment for learning encourages students to accurately assess their own progress and take responsibility for their own development. 

Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black (1998) found evidence that shows the effectiveness of assessment for learning in raising student achievement. In particular, they found teachers who effectively employ assessment for learning strategies have an effect on students equal to or better than the effects of individual tutoring! And furthermore, these strategies have a greater effect on low-achievers, including students with learning disabilities and English language learners. 

What is the learning experience of students and what are we conveying about God when assessment for learning is the predominant method of measuring student achievement? Students know what is going to be on the test because the learning targets have been made clear. They study their text and notes focusing on those targets. They take the test and the teacher returns it with specific feedback on strengths and weaknesses. They analyze the results to identify what they need to learn or practice in order to meet the target. They notice some errors were careless, and others were misunderstandings. If only students could get help with the concepts they did not understand, be more careful, and take the test again—when assessment is used for learning, they can! 

When assessment is used for learning, we meet a God who instructs, teaches, and counsels us in the way we should go with a loving eye. God is with us step by step, forgiving, correcting, encouraging, patiently presenting the lesson again in a new way until we master it. He calls us to be reflective and to participate fully in this process as sons and daughters, even as friends. In assessment for learning, failure invites growth, not self-condemnation and shame. In our spiritual lives, failure can bring us into deeper humility and greater dependence on a God who does not condemn us, but presents us with opportunities for growth. 

Suggested Strategies

We suggest the following eight strategies to assess for learning, which in turn shape a very different understanding of our relationship with God than assessment of learning (adapted from Stiggins et al. 2004):

  1.  Provide a clear and understandable vision of the learning target. When God instructs us, the “learning target” is crystal clear. Think, for example, of the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:22-23. These are “learning targets” to become like Christ.
  2.  Examine examples of strong and weak work with students. The Bible is full of examples of weak and strong characters and they’re in there, at least in part, for our edification.
  3.  Provide descriptive feedback. The Holy Spirit gives timely, specific, descriptive feedback. The Spirit points a laser at our souls convicting us of where we failed to live up to the character of Christ. “You just gossiped about that parent,” the Spirit might say. It is specific, and timely.
  4.  Teach students to self-assess and set goals. God calls us to examine ourselves and see if there is “any sin in us.” And Paul describes the goal for every devoted follower of Jesus:“I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
  5.  Design lessons to focus on one skill, concept, or strategy at a time. God generally deals with us on one issue at a time. Trying to improve too many things at a time usually results in not improving in anything.
  6.  Teach students focused revision. God lets us practice over and over, putting us in similar situations until we receive the grace we need to be changed.
  7. Engage students in self-reflection and let them keep track of their own progress. We are called to reflect on our ways: “Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup” (1 Corinthians 11:28, NIV).
  8. Use assessment information to refine curriculum and guide instruction. God’s instruction is wisely and lovingly tailored to what each of us needs. In Psalm 32:8-9 (NIV), God tells us: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you.”

If we use assessment for learning strategies well, students will be prepared to do well when it is time to do the assessment of learning. More importantly, they will come to know the lovingkindness of the Lord, and trust that with God, all things are possible—even acing that math test!