The Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment
reviewed by Emilie Reagan - February 15, 2019
The Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment by David Conley is an ambitious text that tackles the why, what, and how of next generation assessment. Drawing on his own research (e.g., Conley, 2005, 2010, 2014), as well research from an array of educational scholars (e.g., Darling-Hammond, 2013; Heritage, 2013; Pelligrino & Hilton, 2012; Stiggins, 2017), Conley effectively makes the case for multidimensional, complex assessment systems that are designed to guide student learning, inform instructional improvement, and prepare all students for college and 21st century careers. While advocating for change, Conley does not offer a shiny new object or panacea for education. Rather, he cautiously presents the possibilities and challenges of educational assessment as a lever for educational change.
The Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment begins with the why, offering a rationale for next generation assessment (Chapter One). This rationale emerges at the intersection of changes to the purpose of education (i.e., college and career readiness), recent shifts in federal and state assessment and accountability policies (i.e., flexibility for innovation in assessment), new developments in research on cognition and learning, and advances in technology, measurement, and data analytics. Conley contrasts current and next generation assessment, emphasizing educational standards, learning progressions, and the importance of the assessment of academic, social-emotional, and non-cognitive skills (Chapter Two).
Conley subsequently offers the what of next generation assessment through 10 guiding principles (Chapters Three and Four). These principles are organized in terms of student-centered principles and school-centered principles. Student-centered principles include: considering the student as an active participant in the assessment process; facilitating student ownership of learning; supporting goal attainment; viewing student learning along a novice-expert continuum; and conceptualizing learning in terms of the structure of knowledge and mastery of information. School-centered principles include: synthesizing actionable information; assessments that provide high cumulative validity; integrating knowledge of learning and learning in context; merging accountability and improvement; and creating equitable grading systems. These principles serve as aspirational guideposts for designing a comprehensive system of assessment.
Firmly grounded in the current assessment and accountability contexts, the text then weaves in examples and case studies to illustrate the potential of complex assessment systems (Chapters Five and Six). Conley provides guidance on how to create portraits of individual students that go beyond standardized achievement data and consider the learners in terms of who I am, how I learn, and what I know (p. 99). The examples of school, district, and statewide initiatives draw on some of these guidelines and point to the potential for change in and through assessment. However, as Conley notes, none of [these initiatives] reach the level envisioned as necessary to achieve a comprehensive system of assessments (p. 125); rather, they offer a glimpse of what complex assessment looks like in practice.
From there, Conley outlines the challenges of integrating next generation assessment systems (Chapter Seven), offering the how of next generation assessment through a list of implementation strategies (Chapter Eight). Among other challenges, the text directly addresses the recent backlash to standardized assessment from a variety of stakeholders including educators, students, and families, particularly as manifested through the opt-out movement (Samsel, 2017). The nine strategies for implementing complex assessment systems include: beginning with a clear purpose for next generation assessment; recognizing the culture and context of the district; identifying the purposes of multiple assessments; developing a timeline for implementation; and designing the technological infrastructure to manage the system and meet the needs of multiple stakeholders. In perhaps his most powerful example, Conley presents the fictitious Ocean Highlands, a composite district that designed and implemented a comprehensive assessment and data system. Conley then provides an extended description of how complex data systems can inform college admissions profiles (Chapter Nine).
Finally, the text concludes with an imperative for change in educational assessment (Chapter Ten). Conley outlines his hopes for educational assessments that take into account individual variability across a wide range of indicators. The Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment wraps up with guidance for educators on how to take small steps toward a systems approach to designing educational assessment. Conley reiterates the thesis of the text: next generation assessment has the capacity to integrate multiple sources of assessment data in order to customize and personalize teaching and learning.
Overall, this text is accessible to a wide audience, including school-based educators, policy makers, measurement experts, and educational researchers. In addressing a broad readership, Conley provides a framework and concrete examples without delving into technical detail. As such, The Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment is a useful primer for building on and improving current (and often outdated) assessment practices. However, the accessibility of the text could also be viewed as one of its weaknesses. Although Conley reminds the reader of the complex challenges facing next generation assessment, the list of 10 guiding principles and nine strategies for implementation outlined in The Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment could be interpreted as a simplistic, linear approach to change.
There are three points that merit further consideration. First, while giving a nod to systems-level challenges that must be addressed when considering next generation assessment, Conley argues, a key system-level challenge is depoliticizing educational assessment (p. 204). To the contrary, many would argue (myself included) that education is inherently political. If districts and schools are to work with students, families, and communities to reconceptualize learning and assessment, they must begin by directly acknowledging the political nature of their work. Second, on a related note, Conley does not expand upon questions of equity and inequity in assessment beyond equitable grading practices. Assessments have a long and storied history of perpetuating inequity in schooling and society, and we must acknowledge and address how they have done so in order to move forward with next generation assessment. Third, after almost two decades of reform initiatives driven by high-stakes standardized testing, it may be time to approach assessment as one piece of the complex puzzle of educational reform rather than the key lever of transformational change.
These considerations notwithstanding, the Promise and Practice of Next Generation Assessment is a useful text offering guidelines, examples, and strategies that are familiar to those in the field of educational assessment. What sets this book apart is that they are compiled into one text that can serve as a resource to those considering change in educational assessment. This is a valuable text that clearly and concisely offers guidance on how to conceptualize and design a comprehensive system of assessments that can be adapted to specific school and district contexts. This text is sure to provoke further discussion and exploration.
Conley, D. T. (2005). What it really takes for students to succeed and what we can do to get them ready. San Franscico, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Conley, D. T. (2010). College and career ready: Helping all students succeed beyond high school. San Franscico, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Conley, D. T. (2014). A new era for educational assessment. Boston: MA: Jobs for the future.
Darling-Hammond, L. (Ed). (2013). Next generation assessment: Beyond the bubble test: How performance assessments support 21st century learning. San Francisco, CA; Jossey-Bass Wiley.
Heritage, M. (2013). Formative assessment: A process of inquiry and action. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Pelligrino, J. & Hilton, M. (Eds). (2012). Education for life and work: Developing transferable knowledge and skills in the 21st century. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
Samsel, H. (2017, October 26). 2 years after opt out, are students taking fewer tests? National Public Radio. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/10/26/556840091/2-years-after-opt-out-are-students-taking-fewer-tests
Stiggins, R. (2017). The Perfect Assessment System. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.