What Does Assessment Look Like in Our Current Reality?

Covid-19 has created unprecedented circumstances for learning: there is nothing “normal” with respect to how students, teachers, and parents are interacting. Our default is to return to what we know, understand, and have experienced in order to make sense of the world. As parents, we want to know that our children are learning and we want to understand the extent to which they are learning. As teachers, we want the same, with the added intention of meeting students where they are and planning for further instruction to enhance their understanding.

Typically planning for student learning is informed by assessment: data and evidence related to learner outcomes allows the teacher to communicate with their informed professional judgment what students know and understand, and what they need to know and understand next.

Source: AAC Key Visual (Alberta Assessment Consortium)

The end result of planning, instructing, and assessing student learning typically culminates in a final grade or a year end report, and the current reality provides no exception. In Alberta, “[e]ach student will get final grades and a report card appropriate to their grade level. Teachers will assess a student’s progress and assign a final grade...All students who were on track to progress to the next grade will do so” (Alberta Government, 2020).

Many of Jigsaw Learning’s partners are asking questions: How do we make this happen? How do teachers assess students who are working from home? How do teachers gather data and evidence to support and justify the assessment of student learning in what, for most teachers and students, is an atypical learning environment?

This simplest response to these questions is to ensure the instruction and assessment practices in which teachers are engaging are aligned with district expectations. In Alberta, districts will be reviewing Alberta Education’s guidelines for continuing K to 12 student learning while in-school classes are cancelled due to COVID 19 and “[s]chool authorities will consult with parents and inform them how assessment will be determined in this unique circumstance” (Alberta Government, 2020).

However, the actual response in considering these questions is far more complex.

Prior to planning for assessment, educators must consider the current reality of the learning environment. It has not been an opportunity to carefully plan for online learning to provide to students whose families have made the conscious decision to pursue this route in education. It has been a scenario where the emerging circumstances have identified that, for the time being, teachers and students will connect via whatever means possible to adhere to learning guidelines and parents will do their best to support this adaptation of education. The means through which we plan, the manner in which we instruct, and the mediums through which we assess must reflect our responsiveness to this unexpected change.

Some schools and educators were afforded the opportunity to reap the benefits of digital access to learning tools and had the time to engage in digital citizenship lessons prior to social distancing. The transition to learning at home may have felt seamless in these scenarios as families have enough working devices and reliable internet infrastructure to support a number of people online at one time. This is not the reality in every community.

Even in scenarios where there are devices and infrastructure to support the virtual aspect of learning, educators might wish to consider the context of the actual home environment when purposefully planning for student learning. With that in mind, the table that follows offers considerations about what learning might look like in response to the current situation.

Learning Associate Kathleen Robertson speaks to the notion of strategic and purposeful planning around data collection leading to powerful results for student growth in her blog post Data Tells a Story (2020a): “Why are we collecting data? What information do we hope to learn from our data? How can we use the data to support our students and to build capacity?”

If we expand these thoughts from simply data to the idea of learning activities, which in this scenario include the instruction and assessment of learning outcomes, we might ask the following questions:

  • Why are we planning this learning activity?
  • What understanding do we hope our students learn from this activity? (Does the learning activity have a direct connection to an essential outcome for the grade?)
  • What information do we hope to learn about our students from this activity?
  • How can we use this learning activity to support our students and to build capacity? (Will the learning activity grow a student’s understanding?)

In considering the learning environment in which the learning activity will take place, further considerations may be necessary:

  • Do all families have the resources they need to accomplish the learning activity?
  • Will the learning activity result in any additional stress or potential conflict for the home?
  • Will the learning activity require more time than what is laid out in the home learning expectations?
  • Can teachers help support the learning activity during planned opportunities for connection?

One administrator I worked with in my career reiterated four questions in relation to planning learning activities:

  • What do you want students to know?
  • How will you know that they know?
  • What will you do if they already know?
  • What will you do if they do not know?

[NOTE: This administrator always attributed these questions to the thinking of someone else, but did not reference that someone else specifically]

So what does assessment look like in our current reality? How will we know what our students know so we can make decisions about what to do if they do or they do not know?

Best practices in assessment should not be abandoned at this time. Careful consideration of which assessment to use must remain (as discussed by Learning Associate Cheryl Gascoyne in her blog post Which Assessment Should We Use? (2020a)). Data and evidence must continue to be triangulated to ensure a more complete and accurate picture regarding a student’s understanding (as discussed by Learning Associate Kathleen Robertson in her blog post Triangulate That Data! (2020b)). Analysis of assessments should inform instructional practice to ensure students continue to learn in a supported manner (as discussed by Learning Associate Cheryl Gascoyne in her blog post I’ve Assessed - Now What? (2020b)). Assessment should be both formative and summative in nature, understanding that what was identified to be summative may actually become formative in the process of teaching.

Assessment has always been inherent in learning activity. The data and evidence that is gathered by teachers guides their planning. Is remediation necessary? Is enrichment possible? What is the next logical building block to solidify the foundation of the concept? What cross-curricular connections might be made? What questions might a student explore when they know what they understand?

There are many ways to gather the data and evidence that can demonstrate whether a student has met a learning outcome. Again, there may be digital means to conduct the assessments (exams, tests, quizzes, etc.) that have traditionally been considered the quantitative data with respect to student learning; however, not all teachers may be so fortunate. What the current reality of education offers is the opportunity to expand our assessment repertoire and explore alternative methods to leverage conversational evidence and observational evidence (qualitative data) along with production evidence (often written, quantitative data) to generate a sound professional judgment regarding student learning (Bilash, 2009). We have been given a chance to delve deeper into our practice of differentiating products of learning (Tomlinson & Moon, 2013) and to enhance our understanding of multiple means of action and expression as we provide students with choice in demonstrating their learning (CAST, 2018). We have been afforded the possibility of having a one-on-one conversation with a student to ask probing questions and share valuable feedback without having to keep the rest of the classroom on task. We have been granted the flexibility to ensure we know our students know what we have identified that they should know. We have been provided the good fortune to engage parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, etc. (depending on the home situation) by encouraging students to share their learning with a relatively captive audience, under the circumstances. We are being presented an unexpected occasion to truly consider how the assessment for and of learning can be meaningful and relevant in the context of home and day-to-day life.

Educators are working diligently to meet the needs of students under the current circumstances and plan accordingly. Perhaps it is not the educator’s approach to assessment that should be the focus of differentiation; perhaps what needs to be differentiated is assessment and grading. As stated earlier, assessment is naturally included in learning activity. It is the total accumulation of learning activities (instruction and assessment of outcomes) that typically results in grading - the summation that says the outcome/the course/the grade is complete. While there is discussion regarding pass/fail grading during this pandemic (Feldman, 2020; Guskey, 2020), those decisions do not generally rest in the hands of individual classroom teachers. As school authorities strive to adhere to government guidelines and support staff, students, and families in this uncharacteristic climate of learning, the standards for communicating student learning remains under their purview.

So what does assessment look like in our current reality? It looks like it is

  • fueled with the same intention as it always was: to know our children are learning and to understand the extent of that learning within the context of purposefully planned activities that allow for the demonstration of that learning.
  • challenged by both limitation and opportunity: we cannot do exactly what we did in classrooms so we must innovate our thinking to adjust our practice
  • complex: there are many considerations to weigh in articulating why, what, and how assessment will be engaged.
  • quality teaching: informing our professional judgment of student learning with data and evidence regarding achievement of outcomes.


Alberta Assessment Consortium. 2017. AAC key visual: Assessing student learning in the classroom. https://aac.ab.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/AAC-Key-VisualAUG2017.pdf

Alberta Government. 2020. Alberta Education’s guidelines for continuing K to 12 student learning while in-school classes are cancelled due to COVID 19. https://www.alberta.ca/student-learning-during-covid-19.aspx#toc-2

Bilash, O. 2009. Triangulation in Assessment. https://sites.educ.ualberta.ca/staff/olenka.bilash/Best%20of%20Bilash/Triangulation.html

CAST (2018). Universal design for learning guidelines version 2.2. http://udlguidelines.cast.org

Feldman, J. (2020). Resist the urge to grade students during the coronavirus closures. https://inservice.ascd.org/resist-the-urge-to-grade-students-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/

Gascoyne, C. (2020a). Literacy assessment FAQ - question 1: Which assessment should we use? https://www.jigsawlearning.ca/publications/blog-posts/literacy-assessment-faq-question-1-which-assessment-should-w

Gascoyne, C. (2020b). I’ve assessed, now what? Teachers: Detectives of assessment. https://www.jigsawlearning.ca/publications/blog-posts/ive-assessed-now-what-teachers-detectives-assessment

Guskey, T.R. (2020). Should we consider pass/fail grading? http://tguskey.com/should-we-consider-pass-fail-grading/

Guskey, T.R. and Jung, L.A. (2016. Grading: Why you should trust your judgment. http://tguskey.com/wp-content/uploads/Grading-1-Why-You-Should-Trust-Your-Judgment.pdf

Robertson, K. (2020a). Data tells a story. https://www.jigsawlearning.ca/publications/blog-posts/data-tells-story

Robertson, K. (2020b). Triangulate that data! https://www.jigsawlearning.ca/publications/blog-posts/triangulate-data

Tomlinson, C.A. and Moon, T.R. (2013). Assessment and student success in a differentiated classroom. ASCD.

Wormeli, R. 2020. Teaching and assessing during distance learning via the COVID-19 school shutdown is an opportunity to become creative. https://6192b46b-a555-41bd-98e4-f89abb0dfd7b.filesusr.com/ugd/10b7c9_3faf9ce116da4508bea9d5cb788e1d79.pdf

Author: Jennifer Ferguson