Assessing Achievement

Assessing for achievement occurs when teachers evaluate the quantity of work completed accurately.  Instead of identifying the ideas that the student has mastered, these assessments focus on comprehensive scores that communicate the percent of assessment items the student answered correctly.  There are shortcomings with this assessment approach, such as the ambiguity of the comprehensive scores.  What does it mean if a student scores 50% on a test?  Which 50% of the material do they know?  How close are they to mastering the other 50%?

This type of measurement doesn’t help stakeholders understand what a student has mastered, instead only how much a student has achieved.  In many ways, these comprehensive measures may miscommunicate student performance, leading to students labeling themselves negatively instead of focusing on the growth they have achieved.

Teachers assess achievement when they focus on the completion of learning tasks over the mastery of learning goals. 

Assessing Mastery

Assessing for mastery occurs when teachers evaluate the standards that a student has mastered.  By focusing and reporting on specific learning goals, teachers are able to  identify learning needs, plan interventions and enrichments, and provide action-oriented feedback.  This approach to assessment changes the conversation from “what the student has done” into “what the student can do”.  The real power of assessment is in the action it informs and inspires.  Assessing mastery allows the teacher to evaluate their impact and adjust future learning activities to meet the goal of increasing student learning.  It also allows a student see themselves becoming better – a powerful aspect of learning called self-efficacy.

Assessing mastery may enable you to use a single instrument to provide several data points about student learning.  For example, a single test may cover three or four ideas.  When assessing mastery, each idea would be reported on separately.  This is a benefit since comprehensive scoring, such as percent correct, fails to communicate the details about student learning.  

Guidelines for Designing Assessments

  • Assessing for mastery begins with teacher clarity:
    • What do you want your students to know?  Which skills are the most important?  
  • The goal of assessment should be to determine which specific ideas the student still needs to learn.  
  • Students that have not learned essential concepts should be provided more opportunities to learn these ideas.
  • Students that have mastered the essential ideas should be provided the opportunity to learn more – even if it is a different topic.
  • We are in the business of learning.  Assessments should not be used to label students as a success or a failure.
  • Assessments should lead to actions that increase learning for the student.  Without action, the assessment offers little benefit to the student.

Digital Tools to Support Assessing Mastery

Mastery Connect

Canvas Mastery Paths


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