Cover: New Assessments, Better Instruction?

New Assessments, Better Instruction?

Designing Assessment Systems to Promote Instructional Improvement

Published Sep 3, 2013

by Susannah Faxon-Mills, Laura S. Hamilton, Mollie Rudnick, Brian M. Stecher

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Research Questions

  1. What does research tell us about the influence of testing on instructional practice, and what are the implications of this research for predicting the likely impact of new assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards?
  2. What conditions could be put in place to promote a positive impact of assessments on instruction and, ultimately, deeper learning?

The Hewlett Foundation commissioned RAND to review research about the effects of assessment and to summarize what is known about assessment as a lever for reform. To explore the likely influence of new assessments on teaching practice and the conditions that moderate that relationship, researchers conducted a series of literature reviews. The reviews suggest a wide variety of effects that testing might have on teachers' activities in the classroom, including changes in curriculum content and emphasis, changes in how teachers allocate time and resources across different pedagogical activities, and changes in how teachers interact with individual students. The literature also identifies a number of conditions that affect the impact that assessment may have on practice. Research suggests that the role of tests will be enhanced by policies that ensure the tests mirror high-quality instruction, are part of a larger, systemic change effort, and are accompanied by specific supports for teachers.

Key Findings

How Educators Respond to Assessment and What Factors Affect These Responses

  • Educators' responses to testing include changes in curriculum content and emphasis (changes in the sequence of topics, reallocation of emphasis across and within topics, focus on basic skills and tasks, and focus on higher skills cognitive level); changes in pedagogical activities (focusing on test preparation, changes in instructional strategies, changes in classroom assessment practices); and changes in teachers' interaction with individual students (using test results to individualize instruction, focusing on "bubble kids").
  • Other factors that mediate the relationship between assessment and instructional practices include the attributes of the tests and testing programs; the accountability context; educator background, beliefs, and knowledge; schools and student characteristics; and district and school policies.


  • Test content and format should mirror high-quality instruction.
  • Tests should be used only for purposes for which they were designed and validated.
  • Score reporting should be optimized to foster instructional improvement.
  • Teachers should receive training and support to interpret and use test scores effectively.
  • The test scores should "matter," but important consequences should not follow directly from test scores alone.
  • If there are externally mandated, high-stakes tests, they should be part of an integrated assessment system that includes formative and summative components.
  • Accountability metrics should value growth in achievement, not just status, and should be sensitive to change at all levels of student performance, not just a single cut point.
  • Assessment should be one component of a broader systemic reform effort.

The research described in this report was sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and was produced within RAND Education, a unit of the RAND Corporation.

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