3. The primary purpose of assessment is to improve teaching and learning.
Assessment is used in educational settings for a variety of purposes, such as keeping track of learning, diagnosing reading and writing difficulties, determining eligibility for programs, evaluating programs, evaluating teaching, and reporting to others. Underlying all these purposes is a basic concern for improving teaching and learning. In the United States it is common to use testing for accountability, but the ultimate goal remains the improvement of teaching and learning. Similarly, we use assessments to determine eligibility for special education services, but the goal is more appropriate teaching and better learning for particular students. In both cases, if improved teaching and learning do not result, the assessment practices are not valid (see standard 7).
If an educational assessment practice is to be considered valid, it must inform instruction and lead to improved teaching and learning. The assessment problem then becomes one of setting conditions so that classrooms and schools become centers of inquiry where students and teachers investigate and improve their own learning and teaching practices, both individually and as learning communities. This in turn requires teachers, schools, and school districts not only to use assessment to reflect on learning and teaching but also to examine, constantly and critically, the assessment process itself and its relation to instruction. No matter how elaborate and precise the data provided by an assessment procedure are, its interpretation, its use, or the context of its use can render it useless or worse with respect to improving teaching and learning. For example, climates in which perfectly useful assessment data are employed to place blame can lead to defensiveness rather than to problem solving and improved learning.
Ensuring that assessment leads to the improvement of teaching and learning is not simply a technical matter of devising instruments for generating higher quality data. At least as important are the conditions under which assessment takes place and the climate produced by assessment practices. Sometimes the language we choose to frame assessment distracts us from this standard. We believe that the commonly expressed need for “higher standards” is better expressed as the need for higher quality instruction, for without it, higher standards simply means denying greater numbers of students access to programs and opportunities. The central function of assessment, therefore, is not to prove whether teaching or learning has taken place, but to improve the quality of teaching and learning and thereby to increase the likelihood that all members of the society will acquire a full and critical literacy (see standard 1).