The Central Question: Why do We Assess?

students assess their work & others n

Third grade students use Post-it notes to comment on classmates’ work. With thoughtful guidance from teachers, young learners can play a meaningful role in the reflective process that is at the core of assessment.


Many educational institutions get hung up what they teach and assess, or perhaps go no further than discussing how they teach and assess. The central and most important question though is, “Why do we assess?”

Missing from the education of my youth was the use of assessment as a means to synthesize new information. A biology teacher would give us 20 vocabulary items to memorize and correctly identify on a weekly test, but beyond that, we seldom if ever used those terms in any meaningful way. History and other social sciences, math, foreign languages and even literature were generally taught in a similar manner: knowledge was acquired through memorization, and proof that learning had occurred was measured with multiple choice, true/false, or short-answer tests.

Only those of us in athletics were lucky enough to be able to routinely engage in meaningful assessment. In sports, new skills were acquired, new understandings about those skills were explored, and in meets, matches and games we had the opportunity to “put those new understandings and skills to the test.” After the contest, as individuals, in collaborate peer groups, and with coaches we engaged in reflections about how we had performed. These sports-related assessments were the most fun part of school.

There is no reason academic assessments can’t be equally engaging.


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