Accelerate Learning With Meaningful, Targeted Assessment

Explore ways to accelerate learning by assessing prior learning, backwards designing summative assessments, and conducting frequent formative checks.

Grades K-12 16 min Resource by:
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If you are practicing archery in a completely dark room with no orientation to the target, you will have virtually no chance of hitting a bull’s-eye. In fact, you probably won’t even know which direction to face before releasing the arrow. Not only is this activity futile, but it’s also potentially dangerous. To be successful, you will need some data. What does the target look like? How big is it? Where is it located? How far away is it? What previous experience do you have, and how will that impact your approach? Having answers to these key questions will greatly enhance your opportunity for success.

You can face similar situations in your classroom, and teaching without data is equally ineffective and potentially harmful. You need data to successfully maximize and accelerate the learning in your classroom. Without a clear idea of your target standards, current student progress, and preferred learning styles, you will be teaching in the dark and stumbling blindly through the school year—with a good chance of wasting lots of time and ultimately missing the mark.

To get the data necessary to accelerate learning, it’s important to use a variety of assessment types to measure prior, ongoing, and final learning.

In the spirit of backwards design, you should begin with the end in mind. Like locating the archery target before releasing the arrow, it’s essential that you determine where you are going before you begin any instructional planning. With a clear, academic destination, you will be better prepared to design meaningful and effective learning experiences for your students. Consider three guiding tasks and their related supporting questions as you begin your planning process.

  • Identify the academic standards. As outlined in a previous article in this collection, you will need to identify priority standards. Since you may not have enough time to teach every new standard while also revisiting prerequisite skills and concepts, you should determine which content will receive your priority focus. Then, design your summative assessment around those essential standards. Ask yourself two key questions:
    • What do you want your students to know or be able to do at the end of the lesson or unit?
    • Which of these standards (or parts of these standards) are priority standards that students will need to master in order to be academically successful with future learning?
  • Design the assessment. This is where you design what success will look like. Just like the archer, your students will need to know where to aim and what will constitute mastery. Do they need to get a bull’s-eye or simply hit the target? Will they all be standing in the same place and aiming at the same target, or will their experiences be customized in order to maximize success? The best assessments will feature authentic and personalized opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning. Therefore, the best assessments are usually not multiple-choice tests. Rather, they should have personal meaning to the students while also featuring authentic performances, creations, or demonstrations that show mastery of learning. When designing the summative assessment, remember that it is both empowering and effective to allow students voice and choice in designing what their demonstration of learning looks like. Explore additional AVID Open Access resources to dive deeper into ways to empower students with creativity and choice, engage them through authentic project-based and inquiry learning, and make use of other summative assessment strategies. Regardless of your approach, three questions can help guide you in designing summative assessments:
    • How authentically will your students be able to show what they have learned?
    • How much voice and choice will your students have in determining how they demonstrate mastery?
    • Does the assessment clearly align to the standards?
  • Communicate with your students. Your planning will only be effective if your students understand the expectations. Therefore, be sure to clearly communicate both the required standards and the form of assessment in which they will engage. Ideally, this should be done at the beginning of the lesson or unit. If students are being graded with a rubric or checklist, it’s helpful to give this to your students when the project is introduced. This eliminates surprises and allows students to work intentionally toward the learning target right from the start. The questions below can help guide your planning:
    • How will you clearly communicate both the standards and assessment details to your students?
    • After this communication, how do you know that your students clearly understand the required outcomes? Can they articulate them back to you?
    • Have you shared relevant rubrics and checklists with your students at the beginning of the learning process?

You won’t want to spend your limited instructional time teaching skills and concepts that your students already know. This is where pre-assessments and data from prior learning can be extremely helpful. This information will help you determine critical gaps in prior learning that might become roadblocks to future success. For instance, if your students are writing an essay, they will need to know how to write an effective paragraph with a topic sentence and supporting details. If students are missing this prerequisite skill set, you will need to do some reteaching before they’ll be ready to write the full essay. However, if your students already know these skills, there is no point in spending precious time redoing this learning. You can move on without any reteaching. If a few students need support here, you should reach out individually or as a small group to catch them up and prepare them for success. In this way, you are providing precision support and not holding back the entire class. This approach can accelerate learning by maximizing efficiency. Several strategies can be helpful when assessing prior learning.

  • Review assessment records. In some cases, you will have access to previous assessment data. Reviewing these records can give you insight into the achievement proficiency of your students without needing to take time during class to proctor new assessments. These records might include state test scores, local progress monitoring systems, or even prior letter grades. You’ll need to determine if this data is specific enough to be meaningful, but it is a great place to start. Many schools have digital portal systems that make reviewing this data more efficient, and digital filters may help you target and locate specific data. Check to see if this type of program is available to you. Consider some of the guiding questions below:
    • What data are you seeking?
    • What data is available?
    • What digital systems can help you efficiently locate and filter this data?
    • Can the data provide insights into both group and individual proficiencies?
  • Connect with previous teachers. You can learn a lot about your current students by talking to their previous teachers. In a short meeting, you can gain valuable insights by asking about earlier classroom performance. You can also find out if all academic standards have been taught. You might discover that the teachers ran out of time and didn’t get to some of the prerequisite skills that you know your students will need. Since none of your students will have been exposed to those skills, you will know to prioritize those areas as concepts to teach to the entire class. Similarly, you might learn that one student was absent during a certain unit and will need some additional support, or you could be able to gather the names of several students who struggled with a particular concept. This is all valuable information that can help you target how to use your time. Here are a few other guiding questions to ask yourself:
    • How did the class do overall?
    • Are there prerequisite standards that were not taught?
    • Are there specific students who struggled and will need additional support?
    • Are there specific students who excelled and may need enrichment opportunities?
  • Conduct your own pre-assessment. If you were unable to locate and review meaningful data, you may need to conduct your own pre-assessment. Sharon V. Kramer and Sarah Schuhl offer some valuable suggestions in their webinar, School Improvement for All: Accelerating Learning to Grade Level and Beyond. They emphasize that you don’t want to pre-test on content that hasn’t been taught because this will set students up for failure and needlessly harm their self-confidence. Over-testing to start a school year or learning unit will also consume too much valuable time that could otherwise be spent on new learning. Therefore, if you are going to pre-assess, prioritize checking for prerequisite skills. These are the necessary skills that students should have already learned and that they will need to be successful with your current class curriculum. If you target these prerequisite skills, you will maximize your time by focusing reteaching and support efforts on the skills that students need right now. Instead of focusing on filling every gap, you will be strategically building a bridge to future success. Ask yourself four questions as you plan:
    • What are the essential, prerequisite skills that students will need to be successful in my classroom or in future classes?
    • How can I most efficiently and effectively assess if students know these prerequisite skills?
    • Can I save time and assess these skills informally while my class is learning routines and expectations?
    • Which students need additional support with prerequisite skills, and which students are ready for new learning?

Formative assessments are the most important assessments in the learning process because they can inform, shape, and enhance future learning. Once students move on to a summative assessment, the learning is usually finished, and the class is about to progress forward. This places the assessment too late in the learning process to meaningfully shape learning and improve success. Dr. Catlin Tucker sums this up well when she says, “Don’t spend 90% of your energy/time giving feedback on finished product, put that 90% into giving students feedback as they work!”

Formative assessments can be conducted in many different ways. The most effective formats are embedded meaningfully into the learning process and inform both the students and the teacher. You will want to know how your students are progressing, so you can support them and help them succeed. Your students will also need this information if they are to be empowered in the learning process. If they don’t know where they need to improve, they won’t make an effort to get better in those areas.

To be most effective, we need to replicate the frequent and immediate feedback that students are accustomed to getting when they play video games. Students should always know if they are on the right track, so they can course correct when they are missing the mark. When students receive the feedback that they need to succeed at the point of need, they can more quickly adjust and move on—a responsive approach that can accelerate the learning progress.

There are many options for conducting formative assessments. Some include technology, while others do not.

  • Tests or Quizzes: These are generally efficient, and therefore, they can provide quick access to data, especially when proctored with digital tools. While they are a valuable tool in the teacher tool kit, tests and quizzes are often not the most authentic or effective way to gauge student progress. If you decide that this is your best option, consider digital tools that can make the process more efficient and allow you to spend your time evaluating the results rather than scoring the assessment.
  • Performances: When students perform a skill, you can immediately see how they are doing. You can also provide real-time feedback. If students are performing for the class, you can facilitate peer feedback.
  • Conferences: This is one of the most powerful forms of formative feedback because you can facilitate a face-to-face conversation, which allows you to ask questions, respond to questions, and pivot quickly depending on where the conversation leads. Feedback is immediate and personalized. Conferences can happen during a teacher station of a larger station rotation, while you walk around and observe student learning, or as a scheduled meeting.
  • Recordings: Tools like Seesaw (Tips), Loom (Tips), and Flip (Tips) allow students to easily record themselves through audio, video, or both. Students can use these tools to demonstrate their learning or explain where they are at in the learning process. This is similar to conferencing or performance, but since it’s asynchronous, students can complete this at their own convenience, and you will need to schedule time to view the recordings and follow up. It can be an effective process when you have limited time during class to meet with students.
  • Observation: As students are working, it can be very powerful for you to walk around and observe their progress. When you see a student who is struggling, you can immediately intervene and provide an appropriate level of support. This is “just-in-time” support in its truest form. It’s much like coaching, where you provide support or encouragement at the point of need, and that support is targeted to an immediate and authentic application of the learning.
  • Project Checkpoints: If students are working on a project or creating something, it is critical that they get timely feedback along the way. Once a final product is turned in for a grade, it’s usually too late to improve it. Checkpoints can come in a variety of forms. They might be quick conferences, or students might record a quick update about where they are at in their progress. In some cases—like with a writing assignment—students might turn in an outline, an initial plan, or a rough draft, which allows you to provide feedback at specific checkpoints in the creative process.
  • Peer and Self-Assessment: Not all the feedback needs to come from you. When students have clear outcomes and specific success indicators, they can benefit from peer and self-assessment. This can be guided by the use of a checklist or feedback guide that can then be submitted to you for review. This gives you a chance to learn what the students discovered during the process. Although this approach can provide powerful feedback, it should not be the only source of feedback. Students will still need input from you at some point before their final product is submitted.

As you decide how to collect formative feedback, consider the following questions:

  • Will the data that I get be meaningful?
  • Will the feedback increase student success?
  • Is the assessment format authentic and meaningful?
  • Will students get the feedback “just in time,” or will it be too late to impact learning?
  • Is my process efficient, and is it done in a way that maximizes the learning time in my classroom?

For more assessment strategies and tools, explore the following AVID Open Access articles and collections. While some of these strategies focus on virtual learning environments, most can be modified to work in any learning environment. Similarly, while some discuss summative assessments, these can almost always be reworked to also be used formatively.

Assessments are important tools for accelerating learning. They can provide you with the feedback and data that you need to appropriately scaffold learning and provide “just-in-time” targeted support. The most effective data comes closest to the time of need. Therefore, focus the majority of your efforts on the regular collection of formative data. Kramer and Schuhl suggest a maximum of 10 days between formative assessments. If you go longer than that, your students may be too far down the wrong path for you to effectively and efficiently redirect them through support and reteaching. In fact, formative assessments should be conducted much more frequently than 10 days apart. Ideally, some form of formative evaluation—even if it’s informal observation—should occur daily. Whenever and however you get your data, use it to target specific student needs and set them up for success. This will allow you to build bridges to future learning.

An AVID Connection

Pre-Assessing Students’ Content Knowledge and Writing Skills: It is vital that teachers pre-assess by determining answers to relevant questions related to students’ prior knowledge of a topic and their writing experience. This instructional practice aims to develop students’ writing knowledge and skills, so they can both learn how using specific conventions of writing can help convey meaning and self-reflect on their experience as a writer.


Kramer, S. V., & Schuhl, S. (2020, June 25). School improvement for all: Accelerating learning to grade level and beyond [Webinar]. Solution Tree.

Tucker, C. [@Catlin_Tucker]. (2017, July 11). Don’t spend 90% of your energy/time giving feedback on finished product, put that 90% into giving students feedback as they work! [Tweet]. Twitter.

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