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March 3, 2021

Assessment Literacy: The Most Cost-Effective Cure for Our Schools

Improving the assessment literacy of educators is, hands-down, the most cost-effective way to improve the effectiveness of our schools. That’s a pretty brash claim, of course, but a claim I will support in this analysis.

First off, let’s be clear about what I mean by “assessment literacy.” Here’s the way I define it, a definition that’s supported, in general, by most members of the measurement community:

Assessment literacy consists of an individual’s understandings of the fundamental assessment concepts and procedures deemed likely to influence educational decisions.

Assessment literacy focuses on someone’s understandings of basic assessment stuff, the sort of stuff apt to influence actual educational decisions about students. For someone to be assessment literate, therefore, there’s no need to master the entire boatload of measurement esoterica needed by assessment specialists. Instead, an assessment-literate educator needs to possess only an intuitive understanding of the most potent assessment-based influencers.

Assessment Literacy for Educators in a Hurry

Only Six Understandings

The number of necessary understandings regarding assessment is smaller than generally thought. Indeed, I’ve identified only a half-dozen understandings that must be mastered by truly assessment-literate educators. These six understandings focus on:

  • Validity
  • Reliability
  • Fairness
  • Score Reporting
  • Formative Assessment
  • Measuring Students’ Affect

After going a few short rounds in an effort to comprehend these six understandings, a reader will typically be able to grasp the essential features of each — and at a level necessary to have an impact on real-world educational decisions.

The Importance of Assessment Literacy

The profound payoff of assessment literacy is that those who possess it can avoid making the assessment-based mistakes so prevalent in schools these days. Educational leaders who don’t know assessment, unfortunately, often allow the wrong kinds of standardized tests to be used in evaluating their schools. This leads them to fail to fix schools that need fixing or, worse, mess with schools in no need of fixing.

Similarly, education officials who are insufficiently knowledgeable about assessment’s basics, frequently fail to promote the formative assessment process, a test-based instructional tactic that — if properly implemented — can double the speed of student learning. Such mistakes, be they errors of commission or omission, can clearly harm our students.

Assessment-literate educators are far more likely to avoid measurement-linked mistakes. It’s in this way that expanded assessment literacy can — all by itself — have a huge impact on the success of our schools. Moreover, this impact can be achieved, relatively speaking, for mere pennies.

Although a dash of assessment literacy could be used advantageously by all educational stakeholders, the most crucial audience to address in this instance are the teachers and administrators who operate our schools. Nonetheless, the following groups would also benefit from bolstering their assessment-related understandings:

  • School Board Members
  • Legislators
  • Parents
  • Students
  • The General Public

Assessment-literate educators could play a prominent role in enhancing the assessment literacy of these stakeholders.

Educational “effectiveness” is definitely not equivalent to educational “cost-effectiveness.” This is an inequality that must be recognized by those who are serious about sprucing up our schools. If we want to improve schooling, we need to employ interventions that we can afford.

To illustrate, one of the most direct ways of boosting a school’s success would be to ask teachers to teach fewer students, allowing them to more effectively tailor their instruction for smaller groups.

Similarly, if we dramatically increased teachers’ salaries, over time the teaching profession would be able to attract more of our most able college graduates — a surefire way to improve educational quality.

Distressingly, both of those improvement tactics (and many like them) cost much more money than our society is currently willing to expend.

In contrast, however, the enhancement of educators’ assessment literacy is eminently affordable. In truth, when contrasted with many educational reform approaches, the cost of assessment literacy is a relative pittance. And this is why, of course, increased assessment literacy turns out to be the most effective cure for our schools.


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