Skip to Content
Resource Articles //

MSEd Course Insight: 5 Keys to Assessment Quality

Online master’s in education candidates gain insights into measuring student outcomes.

In this educational era marked by frequent and varied student testing, finding the best ways to obtain high-quality data remains a top priority.

In The Quest for Quality, authors Stephen Chappuis, Jan Chappuis, and Rick Stiggins share five checkpoints, or keys, for ensuring that assessment tools provide accurate and useful results. This article is essential reading for Master of Science in Education (MSEd) students in Walden University’s Designing Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, a course that emphasizes the importance of aligning curriculum, instruction, and assessment and the resulting impact on student learning. Education professionals discuss multiple purposes and methods of assessment as well as effective approaches to grading and reporting.

MSEd Course Insight: 5 Keys to Assessment Quality

If you’re pursuing an MSEd or considering it, this excerpt from The Quest for Quality can provide valuable insights into assessment quality. Read along with Walden’s master’s in education students to learn more:1

Long before No Child Left Behind (NCLB), high-stakes tests were common in schools. Cut scores on tests have dictated promotion from one grade level to the next, and teachers have used them to assign passing or failing grades. High school students continue to take course placement exams, subject-area finals, exit exams, and college entrance tests. Making decisions that affect individuals and groups of students on the basis of a single measure is part of our past and current practice.

In the past, few educators, policymakers, or parents would have considered questioning the accuracy of these tests. Most assumed that a low score or grade was probably justly assigned and that a decision made about a student as a result was as defensible as the evidence on which it was based.

But NCLB has exposed students to an unprecedented overflow of testing. In response to the accountability movement, schools have added new levels of testing that include benchmark, interim, and common assessments. Using data from these assessments, schools now make decisions about individual students, groups of students, instructional programs, resource allocation, and more. We’re betting that the instructional hours sacrificed to testing will return dividends in the form of better instructional decisions and improved high-stakes test scores.

Given the rise in testing, especially in light of a heightened focus on using multiple measures, it’s increasingly important to address two essential components of reliable assessments: quality and balance.

Keys to Quality

Although it may seem as though having more assessments will mean we are more accurately estimating student achievement, the use of multiple measures does not, by itself, translate into high-quality evidence. Using misinformation to triangulate on student needs defeats the purpose of bringing in more results to inform our decisions.

Five keys to assessment quality provide the larger picture into which our multiple measures must fit (Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis, & Chappuis, 2006). Only assessments that satisfy these standards—whether teachers’ classroom assessments, department or grade-level common assessments, or benchmark or interim tests—will be capable of informing sound decisions. Here are the five keys:

  1. Clear Purpose

    The assessor must begin with a clear picture of why he or she is conducting the assessment. Who will use the results to inform what decisions? The assessor might use the assessment formatively—as practice or to inform students about their own progress—or summatively—to feed results into the grade book. In the case of summative tests, the reason for assessing is to document individual or group achievement or mastery of standards and measure achievement status at a point in time. The purpose is to inform others—policymakers, program planners, supervisors, teachers, parents, and the students themselves—about the overall level of students’ performance.

  2. Clear Learning Targets

    The assessor needs to have a clear picture of what achievement he or she intends to measure. If we don’t begin with clear statements of the intended learning—clear and understandable to everyone, including students—we won’t end up with sound assessments. For this key to quality, it’s important to know the learning targets represented in the written curriculum. The four categories of learning targets are:

    • Knowledge targets, which are the facts and concepts we want students to know. In math, a knowledge target might be to recognize and describe patterns.
    • Reasoning targets, which require students to use their knowledge to reason and problem solve. A reasoning target in math might be to use statistical methods to describe, analyze, and evaluate data.
    • Performance skill targets, which ask students to use knowledge to perform or demonstrate a specific skill, such as reading aloud with fluency.
    • Product targets, which specify that students will create something, such as a personal health-related fitness plan.

    For each assessment, regardless of purpose, the assessor should organize the learning targets represented in the assessment into a written test plan that matches the learning targets represented in the curriculum.

  3. Sound Assessment Design

    This key ensures that the assessor has translated the learning targets into assessments that will yield accurate results. It calls attention to the proper assessment method and to the importance of minimizing any bias that might distort estimates of student learning.

    Teachers have choices in the assessment methods they use, including selected-response formats, extended written response, performance assessment, and personal communication. Selecting an assessment method that is incapable of reflecting the intended learning will compromise the accuracy of the results. For example, if the teacher wants to assess knowledge mastery of a certain item, both selected-response and extended written response methods are good matches, whereas performance assessment or personal communication may be less effective and too time-consuming.

    Bias can also creep into assessments and erode accurate results. Examples of bias include poorly printed test forms, noise distractions, vague directions, and cultural insensitivity. Teachers can minimize bias in a number of ways. For example, to ensure accuracy in selected-response assessment formats, they should keep wording simple and focused, aim for the lowest possible reading level, avoid providing clues or making the correct answer obvious, and highlight crucial words (for instance, most, least, except, not).

  4. Effective Communication of Results

    The assessor must plan to manage information from the assessment appropriately and report it in ways that will meet the needs of the intended users, keeping in mind the following:

    • Are results communicated in time to inform the intended decisions?
    • Will the users of the results understand them and see the connection to learning? Do the results provide clear direction for what to do next?

    This key relates directly back to the purpose of the assessment. For instance, if students will be the users of the results because the assessment is formative, then teachers must provide the results in a way that helps students move forward. Specific, descriptive feedback linked to the targets of instruction and arising from the assessment items or rubrics communicates to students in ways that enable them to immediately take action, thereby promoting further learning.

    For example, let’s say the content standard you’re teaching to is “Understands how to plan and conduct scientific investigations,” and your assessment rubric states that a strong hypothesis includes a prediction with a cause-and-effect reason. Feedback to students can use the language of the rubric: “What you have written is a hypothesis because it is a prediction about what will happen. You can improve it by explaining why you think that will happen.” Or, you can highlight the phrases on the rubric that describe the hypothesis’s strengths and areas for improvement and return the rubric with the work.

    A grade of D+, on the other hand, may be sufficient to inform a decision about a student’s athletic eligibility, but it is not capable of informing the student about the next steps in learning.

  5. Student Involvement in the Assessment Process

    Students learn best when they monitor and take responsibility for their own learning. This means that teachers need to write learning targets in terms that students will understand. For example, suppose we are preparing to teach 7th graders how to make inferences. After defining inference as “a conclusion drawn from the information available,” we might put the learning target in student-friendly language: “I can make good inferences. This means I can use information from what I read to draw a reasonable conclusion.” If we were working with 2nd graders, the student-friendly language might look like this: “I can make good inferences. This means I can make a guess that is based on clues.”

    Teachers should design the assessment so students can use the results to self-assess and set goals. A mechanism should be in place for students to track their own progress on learning targets and communicate their status to others. For example, a student might assess how strong his or her thesis statement is by using phrases from a rubric, such as “Focuses on one specific aspect of the subject” or “Makes an assertion that can be argued.”

  6. Options for Online Teaching Degrees

    Walden’s online master’s in education degree program offers cutting-edge curriculum that connects you with nationally recognized education experts, researchers, and scholars. Choose from 14 MSEd specializations. In the Curriculum Instruction and Assessment (Grades K–12) specialty, you’ll learn how to apply evidence-based and reflective practices to make informed decisions that positively impact student learning.

    When you match your talents and interests to one of Walden’s online teaching degree programs, you add value to your career and your classroom. With an MSEd specialization in Elementary Reading and Mathematics, Science (Grades K–8), Integrating Technology in the Classroom (Grades K–12), or any of Walden’s other highly relevant degree programs you’ll lead students to reach their highest potential. Pair your passion for teaching with a high-quality MSEd degree program and find your own keys to success.

    Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online MS in Education degree program with multiple specializations to meet your personal interests. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


    Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,