Appraisal culture: what it is and why it matters

In the post-COVID pandemic educational environment, assessment offers ways to gain critical insights into student thinking and learning and the areas that need support for progress toward learning goals. While thoughtful assessment design and implementation are necessary for student success, building a strong assessment culture in schools is often overlooked but equally important.

ISTE has partnered with the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment (NCIEA) to explore the characteristics of a healthy assessment culture. The first step is to think about the idea of ​​school culture and how it supports the related concept of assessment culture.

The meaning of school culture

School culture is the set of implicit assumptions, beliefs and expectations that drive the activities and behavior within a school. This includes the unwritten rules about decision-making and the types of achievements that are valued and celebrated. Research shows that reforms often fail in schools when they clash with or ignore existing school culture.

Likewise, assessment culture is shaped by the underlying beliefs and expectations that students, teachers and leaders have about assessment practices. In the same way that school culture can support or hinder efforts to implement new ideas, a school’s assessment culture can influence whether assessment practices – directly or indirectly – positively impact teaching and learning.

Contrasting perspectives on assessment culture

We can view different components of assessment culture on a continuum, ranging from less supportive to more supportive of teaching and learning. Imagine a school where students talk about assessment as a process that confirms whether they are smart (or not). Compare that with another school where students see assessment as a process identifies strengths and weaknesses that determine what they do next. We know that students who adopt a growth mindset are better equipped to tackle challenging work, deal with setbacks in learning, and have more control over their learning. In other words, using formative assessment as a learning tool promotes this growth mindset in students.

Now consider the contrasting experiences of teachers. At one school, the limited opportunities for professional learning in the area of ​​assessment focus exclusively on the administration of purchased products. At another school, ongoing assessment-related professional learning opportunities prioritize formative assessment practices that are embedded in the student learning experience.

The research is clear: formative assessment has beneficial effects on student learning. Teachers are often trained in summative assessment or test preparation, but not enough professional development is provided for effective formative assessment practices. When a school’s assessment culture focuses on test prep rather than best practices for classroom assessment, teachers and students miss out.

School and district leaders influence the assessment culture in a school system. When school or district goals prioritize test performance over a comprehensive demonstration of student understanding, this often results in a limited curriculum. This focus on “teaching to the test” limits students’ access to an enriching educational experience.

First step in changing the assessment culture

Because of the potential impact of assessment culture on practice, teachers and leaders should identify cultural aspects at work within their school or district. Because assessment culture is built over time and is often based on assumptions about assessment that are not explicitly articulated or shared by everyone in a school, understanding and changing a school’s assessment culture takes time.

One way to explore assessment culture is to ask people what they think about the different types of assessments used in their school. Have conversations and gather input from a wide variety of people in the school community, including students, families, classroom teachers, support staff, and school leaders. Provide multiple avenues for stakeholders to share their thoughts and opinions, such as anonymous surveys, structured focus groups, or open discussions.

The process of examining assessment culture through conversations helps schools and districts identify factors that support or potentially limit the effective use of assessment evidence. By understanding your assessment culture, you can develop a strategy for changing assessment-related practices (e.g. assessment selection/development, use of evidence, professional learning, etc.) to more effectively support student learning.

ISTE is working with assessment experts at the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment, with funding from the Walton Family Foundation and Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to explore the concept of assessment culture and refine a series of assessment culture continua. The ultimate goal is to support districts in identifying key aspects of assessment culture (i.e., making them visible) and facilitating changes in school-based assessment practices to more positively impact student learning.