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Balanced Systems of Assessment: Introduction to Balanced Assessment Systems

REL Pacific
July 9, 2021

This blog is based on a REL Pacific webinar titled “The Challenges and Opportunities of Balanced Systems of Assessment in the COVID-19 Era,” hosted on May 17, 2021 and presented by Drs. Erika Landl, Chris Brandt, and Carla Evans from the Center for Assessment. You can view a recording of the webinar.

Illustration of silhouette figure making decision about checklist

Assessments are a vital part of education, giving teachers, education leaders, and policy makers important information on what students are learning and where resources can be most effectively allocated. But district and classroom assessments that are administered without careful consideration for how they inform teaching, learning, and educational decision making can constrain, rather than support, student learning and performance. In this first installment of our blog series on balanced systems of assessment, we'll explain the importance of having a balanced system of assessment, think about what that may look like in practice, and consider how to begin selecting assessments that align to the needs of your school or district.

When considering individual assessments, it can be difficult to understand how one assessment may interact with others, and differences across schools, districts, and states can also influence how effective a certain assessment or assessment system may be. Balanced assessment systems, then are important because they allow educators to link assessments through clearly defined learning targets, provide multiple sources of evidence to support decision making, and document progress over time. In other words, assessments should not be designed and implemented independent of one another: each must be appropriate for supporting its intended purpose while working with others to address the overall goal of the assessment system.

So what is a balanced assessment system?

A balanced assessment system:

  • Accounts for the varied needs of stakeholders at different levels of the education system.
  • Is unified by common, targeted goals for student learning.
  • Promotes the flow of information across levels in an efficient, intentional manner that informs educational decisions.
  • Requires high-quality assessments and high-quality/appropriate use of results (such as assessment literacy).
  • Is comprehensive, continuous, coherent, efficient, and useful.1
Assessment systems are comprehensive when they allow students to demonstrate their understanding in a variety of ways and reflect the breadth and depth of the state content standards. They are coherent when they promote deeper and more meaningful learning for students and are compatible with the underlying model of learning. Systems are continuous when they document student progress over time. They are efficient when no individual assessment is redundant and all are used to make education decisions. Finally, assessment systems are useful when they provide the necessary information for decision-making to inform the specific instruction or education programs that they were intended to support.

In addition, systems of assessment that are meant to serve multiple purposes must be carefully planned according to what data are needed at the school, district, and state levels. A single assessment system, even if serving multiple purposes, cannot accomplish everything: for example, assessments that monitor student performance are less effective at instructing students, and vice versa.2

Designing a balanced system of assessment is an iterative process that requires a comprehensive understanding of how your assessments will meet your goals. To begin, it's helpful to first define a theory of learning and identify what role assessment will play in that theory. Next, interrogate the existing assessment system or resources available, revising existing systems and potentially eliminating redundant or unnecessary systems, and identify gaps in information and any additional needs of your school or district. Finally, design a comprehensive plan that will support your assessment needs before selecting assessments to be a part of your balanced system of assessment.

For more help in identifying and evaluating assessments, refer to the Center for Assessment's Interim Assessment Toolkit (phase 1 and phase 2), which can help you identify your needs and the assessments that align to them and select assessments that are relevant, high quality, and appropriate for your system.

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Footnotes:

1 Marion, S., Thompson, J., Evans, C., Martineau, J., & Dadey, N. (2018). A Tricky Balance: The Challenges and Opportunities of Balanced Assessment Systems. Annual Meeting of the National Council on Measurement in Education, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. https://www.nciea.org/sites/default/files/publications/A%20Tricky%20 Balance_031319.pdf

2 Chattergoon, R., & Marion, S. (2016). Not As Easy As It Sounds: Designing a Balanced Assessment System. The State Education Standard, 16(1), 6–9.