Reframing the Assessment Problem

A guest post by Trey Duke

RTI and Instructional Technology Coordinator for Rutherford County Schools, Tennessee

Imagine Learning now publishes monthly guest posts in order to stimulate conversations about K12 education across the country. Opinions expressed herein are those of the individual author and may not necessarily reflect the official opinion of Imagine Learning.


FreePik image via David Hartman and Hartman

In the world of education, there are often cries for more—more technology, more resources, more parental involvement. These cries for more are well-intentioned and usually justified.

However, one thing you never hear a rallying cry for is more assessments. In fact, one could state that over the past few years, “assessment” has become a bad word among teachers and parents.

Various community groups and educational agencies see assessments as a waste of class time, as well as a method of turning our students into lifeless spreadsheets of data. This cry reached a pinnacle last year when President Obama’s administration called on Congress to look at over assessment of students while working on the new ESSA law.

Assessments vs. Learning

I have spent my entire career in the educational field, and I can vouch for the amount of testing we ask our students to endure.

In fact, as a former elementary school principal, I remember sitting at my desk in early July, completing my yearly calendar and scheduling testing date after testing date on month after month—wondering when instruction was going to take place. Like many others, my reaction was outrage, and I was known to say that weighing the elephant over and over wouldn’t make it any bigger.

If you had asked me then, I would have championed the cry that we have an assessment problem. Somewhere along the line we became confused and began to think the more assessments we gave, the more our students would learn.

Teachers, with towering piles of state, district, school, grade-level, and classroom assessments on their desks, were sent the message that the size of the stack equated to the level of learning in the room. We perpetuated the notion that having data on students was the priority.

I think we can all agree now that this thought is misguided and wrong. Big binders of data do not equal student learning.

Data vs. Instruction

My perspective on the assessment issue has changed in my current job as I have the opportunity to work closely with teachers who attempt to address the needs of our most at-risk students.

I no longer believe the issue is that we give our students too many assessments. Instead, I would argue the problem is we don’t adequately use the information gathered from those assessments to guide our next instructional steps and differentiate for those who need extra help.

The real assessment problem occurs when we take class time away from instruction to determine what students know, then change nothing in our practices to address our students’ individual needs.

Having data should not be the priority; knowing what the data tells us should be the priority.

When we use assessment results to target missed instructional standards, gather small groups of students to reteach a concept, or work to enrich those who are showing mastery, we vastly improve the education our students are receiving. This helps ensure students leave our class more prepared for the next day and the next grade level.

Diagnoses vs. Treatment

Let’s remember that we are not the only professionals using assessments. You would never hear a sick patient refuse a doctor’s suggestion for a CT scan or refuse needed blood work. If your doctor could not provide you with a reasonable diagnosis, you would likely demand more tests be done in order to prescribe the best treatment plan.

Additionally, the more at risk you are, the more critical and frequent the tests would become. Most patients would never think of protesting medical treatments; instead, they assume their doctor is reading the charts, looking for patterns, seeking missing information, and collaborating with colleagues to find a remedy for the illness.

This pattern must be our goal in education as well. As a teacher, you may not always have control over every assessment you are charged to give, but you do have control over if and how you use the results.

Reframe your thinking about the data we collect about students. What does it tell you? Where do you need to go next?

Make this thinking a priority, and assessments will become the tools you cannot do without. Whether you give an assessment by choice or by mandate, use the results. Metaphorically, dig deeper into your patients’ charts, adjust their treatment plans as needed, and put them on the road to being healthier, faster.


About the Author

Trey Duke, former principal in Tennessee K12 system


Trey Duke currently serves as the Coordinator of RTI and Instructional Technology for Rutherford County Schools in Tennessee.

As the former principal of Smyrna Elementary School, Trey led this Title I school with the highest percentage of poverty students and English Language Learners in the district as they earned the recognition of “Tennessee Reward School” for exceptional student progress.  In 2008, Trey was the Tennessee recipient of the Milken National Educator Award.

To share your opinions on this article with the author, connect with Trey on Twitter by following @treyduke.



Watch for another informative educational topic next month!


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I. Show historical video clips

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