What on Earth is the relationship between assessment and instruction?

I can recall classes in my past where the concept of learning was completely separate from being tested. We were taught and then we were tested, and the overlap between the two was minimal. The test was seen as the end point of our learning for that unit or that semester, and if we didn’t have the material by then, then we had failed. We have discussed repeatedly the idea that by the end of a course, a student’s grade or evaluation should not be a surprise to them. If a teacher does their job effectively, they will have assessed the students learning often throughout the course and used this assessment to help formulate further instruction and direction.


Carol Ann Tomlinson outlines 10 understandings regarding the purpose of assessment, and all of them highlight the idea that assessment and teaching are connected and dependent on each other. She discusses that evaluation is not about the grade, the end result, the break in learning, or the teacher’s “gotcha” moment. Assessment is about highlight strengths, illuminating needs, and compiling information that will shape and determine instruction for the rest of the course. Assessment is just another part of a bigger picture of teaching, and it plays a big role in how the class will proceed.

Another truth of assessment and instruction is that it is constant and cyclical. Once learning begins there are no breaks or pauses. I love to hike so I will use that as an analogy for this. At the beginning of the course the teacher and the students will set off onto a path. The end goal should be pretty clear in the teacher’s mind, or else they could be leading the students onto a very disorganized and potentially misleading and worrisome trip. The teacher knows where they need to end up, but along the way there could be a felled tree, or some students could be lagging behind. By using assessments to see how the students are doing along the hike, the teacher can make decisions about what is the best course of action to reach the goal. Assessments act as directional signs for teachers to continue to lead the students in the most efficient and beneficial route to success. The chapter in Classroom Instruction that Works points out how vital it is to use assessment to guide instruction because of the rapidly increasing diversity of classrooms. There is just no way for a teacher to begin the year fully knowing the needs of each student in such a diverse room, making success entirely dependent on formative assessments.


An article I found called Formative Assessment is the Cornerstone of Differentiated Instruction reiterates all of the points. The article begins with some questions that teachers may ask when they enter the field. How can I manage/organize/make time/meet the needs…etc. The article argues that none of these kinds of questions are necessary as long as an educator has been given the tools to assess effectively. The steps they outline are…

  • Set purpose
  • Check for Understanding
  • Feeding Forward (using assessment data to plan instruction for future)

Adhering to these steps will result in

  • Student engagement

All of this information makes the idea of Backwards design so much more significant. It is difficult to know from the beginning how exactly the students are going to do in regards to the material, so if an instructor has  very clear end goals, they can use assessment throughout the year to help shape and redesign and guide the path that will bring the class to success.


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