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Designing a Functional Assessment System

Note to readers: I’m writing this blog serially for the purpose of describing the design of the 8 interacting systems of our Integrated Science Program for ages 13-20. It is possible for readers to enjoy a post as a stand-alone piece, but if you feel as though you want more context, previous posts might prove helpful. Each post is only 3 pages (see downloadable PDF) so I refrain from redundancy.

Recrafting the Messages

I chose the words for this post’s title carefully. I truly believe that 1) widespread conventional secondary assessment is not a product of intentional design; 2) cobbled-together reactions to grading policies, exam-based courses, and graduation requirements do not resemble anything functional; and 3) the processes, practices and loops experienced by teachers and students do not, and never have, comprised a real system

It has been quite invigorating to turn the tables on each of these elements and design a functional assessment system from scratch.

The collection of structures and practices that most high school and university students experience as ‘assessment’ convey some pretty terrible messages about academic performance. 

Masked as desirable attributes, the following terms flow freely from educators’ lips. Rarely are the lived messages articulated, so I define them below:

  • Accountability is the relationship between the student and a very narrow set of task types and formats, grading policies, and subjective interpretation of the teacher, which may change with each new unit as the content changes. Students are accountable to the exam publisher or teacher, and their achievement is wholly dependent on these entities. In this way, the most accountable students are often the least autonomous learners.
  • Achievement is a status, rank or grade, often earned on high-stakes exams, which may take the form of end-of-unit tests. Students have one opportunity per a given set of content or chapters to determine their level of achievement, which fixes the status, rank or grade. (Re-takes, test corrections, and other similar policies do not alter this definition—in fact they reinforce the message that the demonstration of content understanding takes place within a set timeframe).
  • Studying is memorizing, and is done just before the need to regurgitate information bytes, parrot a published author’s or the teacher’s own reasoning/analysis, or compare definitions.
  • A good student is one who studies well, achieves status, and exhibits strong accountability (dependence).

It was obvious that this collection of anxiety-provoking messages needed careful recrafting.

Any system behaves in a way that reflects what its designers value. The system itself is the messenger, not the stakeholders within it.

If students cannot establish accountability as defined above, if they fail time and again, or if they are unable to study well, teachers cannot console them with contradictory messages.

Students know better.

The lived experience of the stakeholders represents the values of the system. 

For me, the most important part of our assessment system design was the identification of these foundational values.

I am proud that the central tenets of our assessment system silence messages of ‘performance by pain’ and replace them with more encouraging, equitable messages.

“The lived experience of the stakeholders represents the values of the system.”

Messages and Mechanisms

Inside systems, messages are sent through mechanisms: the structures, processes and feedback loops that make them tick. 

In this way, systems communicate through actions, which is probably why I am magnetically attracted to them.

Actions are my preferred means of communication, too. 

In this section I will articulate the main messages of our assessment system and the general mechanisms we use to deliver those messages. I’ll maintain the assumption that readers already have a feel for the ‘why’ behind the messages: why they are desirable in 2020, why they align with what the field has learned from the neuroscience of teen brains, why they improve upon our conventional practice.

I invite questions and comments below the post, so feel free to question this assumption and I’ll happily respond. All of these message-mechanism pairings are important, and I present them in no particular order:

We’ll let you know when the next post is ready for you!


“Expert learners know that ongoing practice and deep engagement bring about development. They know that learning is continuous, that there is no arrival point at which one is finally ‘expert’ and no longer needs to practice.”

Motivation, Grit, Resilience, Creativity

The desirable attributes and dispositions noted by the title of this section are not explicitly assessed through our rubrics. This might shock or confuse some readers, but after careful consideration of various characterizations and definitions, it became clear that no task could do them justice and there was no need to force the issue. 

We once again relied on the internal messaging delivered by the system. By combining the messages and mechanisms described above into a powerful experiential package, students persevere and become resilient because the very design of the assessment system demands it

Student motivation is the grease that turns the gears. Those with grit give an extra push even when energy is low.

In a similar vein, and after leading teams of people to create many somethings from nothing, I firmly believe that student creativity should never be measured. It is heartbreaking to think that a rubric or other mechanism would send a message like, “Pretty good, kid. But not that creative.” Ugh. Our assessment system covers a variety of competencies that, in different combinations, are likely to produce creative works. But we will never use a ruler against which degrees of creativity are determined.

Creativity is fostered through the content organization and instructional approaches of the designers, and within a safe classroom community facilitated by teachers and students. Designs that provide long incubation periods, and seed non-linear connectivity, help students deliver their creative work at the ‘just-right’ moment in their developmental journey. 

If anything, it’s the designers who should be assessed for our ability to create the conditions within which student creativity can thrive. Some things shouldn’t be assessed, and it’s important to know when and where to draw the line.

Thanks for reading,

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