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MSEd Course Insight: 5 Keys to Quality Assessments

Experts share with master’s in education candidates the steps for building effective assessment tools.

Quantity is never necessarily a guarantee of quality, and that’s especially true when it comes to educational assessment tests.

“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,” write Jan Chappuis, Stephen Chappuis, and Rick Stiggins in “The Quest for Quality.”1

MSEd Course Insight: 5 Keys to Quality Assessments

The article, from the journal Educational Leadership, is an important resource for online MS in Education students in the Walden University course Designing Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. In the course, education professionals examine classroom curriculum, instruction, and assessment in the context of standards and accountability. They also explore multiple purposes and methods of assessment and effective approaches to grading and reporting.

Academic papers like “The Quest for Quality” provide master’s in education online students with relevant, practical knowledge they can use immediately in their classrooms. For educators working with assessment tools, the authors say there are five keys to assessment quality “that provide the larger picture into which educators’ multiple measures must fit.”

“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,” they write.

If you’re an education professional, the article may provide tools you can use, too. Read along to learn more about assessment quality:

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' 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.”

Reach Higher With a Master’s in Education

If you’re an educator dedicated to lifelong learning, a master’s in education online can provide you with the latest teaching strategies to help you advance classroom learning. At Walden, courses like Designing Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment can give you knowledge and skills to move ahead in your current job or pursue a new career path.

With 14 specializations in Walden’s MS in Education program, you can find the path that aligns your learning goals with your passion. Options include Elementary Reading and Mathematics, Science (Grades K–8), and Teacher Leadership (Grades K–12). The Self-Designed specialization lets you customize your MSEd degree studies in the ways that are most meaningful to you.

At Walden, you earn your teaching degree your way. Choose the traditional program path or from six specialization options offered in an accelerated format, which lets you complete your online master’s in education in as little as 12 months. And when you choose Walden for your online teaching degree, you’re choosing quality. Walden is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), a mark of excellence. You’ll learn from master teachers, researchers, and nationally recognized education experts.

Enhance your career with a master’s in education and let your knowledge and skills boost student achievement, building a better future for all.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Education degree program online with 14 specializations. Expand your career options and earn your degree using a convenient, flexible learning platform that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,