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Assessing Student Learning by Design: Principles and Practices for Teachers and School Leaders

reviewed by Jennifer D. Morrison & Julia Lopez-Robertson - November 22, 2021

coverTitle: Assessing Student Learning by Design: Principles and Practices for Teachers and School Leaders
Author(s): Jay McTighe and Steve Ferrara
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807765414, Pages: 112, Year: 2021
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Testing, as it relates to schooling, is widely used to measure students against other students, schools to other schools, or districts to neighboring districts. While testing is a form of assessment, it has become the go-to tool to determine the effectiveness of a school’s ability to provide high-quality teaching and students’ abilities to learn. However, as McTighe and Ferrara (2021) demonstrate in their book, Assessing Student Learning by Design: Principles and Practices for Teachers and School Leaders, standardized tests, and even tests in general, are not the only form of quality assessment. Through a straightforward yet comprehensive explanation and cross-disciplinary, cross-grade level examples, the authors clearly articulate the meaning, purpose, and processes of different types of assessments available to individual teachers, schools, and districts. They claim their focus is on assessment “by design,” which suggests that effective assessment is not punitive, heavy-handed, random, or arbitrary, but instead the result of “careful planning and clarity about educational goals, various assessment purposes, diverse audiences for assessment information, types of assessment formats and tools, and options for communication the results” (p. xi).

As noted in the Introduction, the book is written for educators from all levels, from PreK to graduate school, for the purpose of their becoming aware of the range of ways to evaluate students and inform their teaching. The authors begin by distinguishing differences between the terms assessment, testing, and evaluation, which they claim are frequently used interchangeably but carry with them very different meanings and connotations. In this manner, the authors are able to separate their purpose to help educators engage in evidence-based, multiple measures for assessment from the normalized assumption that testing is the only way to evaluate student performance and instructional practices. Within each subsequent chapter, McTighe and Ferrara provide thick descriptions of assessment process components and assessment types using representative examples from different grade levels and content areas. Additionally, they end each chapter with a brief summary and two or three reflection questions to help readers bridge what they are reading within the book to their personal practice.

The authors begin in Chapter 1 by identifying five principles of effective classroom assessments: they should serve learning, have multiple measures, align with goals, measure what matters, and be fair (p. 1). Each of these principles is then fully explained through examples and strong metaphors (the principle of multiple measures is compared to a photo album) to establish a philosophical foundation on which to build the subsequent chapters.

In Chapter 2, the authors discuss a framework for assessment planning. Readers familiar with McTighe’s work will recognize language and concepts he has developed over the decades, including how a backward design framework begins with considering how students will be assessed first in order to then backmap pertinent and meaningful instruction regarding the knowledge, skills and processes, understanding (concepts), and dispositions students must build to successfully perform the desired assessment. Figures are provided to clearly demonstrate the alignment between these goal types, standards, and examples of each.

Chapters 3 and 4 provide succinct explanation and examples of assessment methods, including constructed, performance-based, and process-based, and how to evaluate these through criterion lists, rubrics, self-reflections, and other forms of non-testing evaluations. The authors provide examples of each of these measurement tools, as well as theoretical underpinning for why these methods are effective. Chapter 5 then provides concrete, tangible suggestions for how to communicate such assessment results beyond a simple numeric representation.

In Chapters 6 and 7, the authors share suggested practices specifically for classroom teachers and school leaders respectively. They emphasize the need for clarity, pre-assessment, authenticity in assessment design as well as transparency about grading criteria and expectations so students know what target they are trying to reach. They also recommend sharing evaluative power with others—in the case of teachers by allowing students to self-reflect and self-evaluate, and in the case of school leaders by allowing faculty and staff to provide input into professional development and share successful practices. In both cases, the authors discourage overreliance on standardized test preparation, which “can result in narrowing of the curriculum and a crowding out of other assessment formats, especially performance-based and process-oriented assessments” (p. 80).

Assessment is a hot and high-stakes topic in education, and McTighe and Ferrara have created a user-friendly and readable text for all educators beginning at the preservice level and continuing through to administration. McTighe and Ferrara walk the reader through a significant amount of content but provide ample support with practical examples throughout each chapter, reflection questions at the end of each chapter that lead the reader to analyze their instruction and the role of assessment, and a glossary that provides clear and to-the-point definitions of terms. What is sincerely appreciated about this book is not only its clean, clear, succinct nature and its accessibility for educators of all levels, but also its strategic and purposeful efforts to be inclusive of all types of educational contexts. Specialist courses such as business, visual and performing arts, physical education, music, and computer science are notoriously omitted from texts such as this one. McTighe and Ferrara take great measures to ensure all contexts are represented in a fair and equitable manner. We believe this would be a welcome text for schools to use in book studies and professional development learning, as well as for universities to integrate into their preservice teacher curriculum.


McTighe, J., & Ferrara, S. (2021). Assessing student learning by design: Principles and practices for teachers and school leaders. Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 22, 2021
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23907, Date Accessed: 12/4/2021 8:14:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Jennifer D. Morrison
    University of South Carolina
    E-mail Author
    JENNIFER D. MORRISON, Ph.D., is a National Board Certified teacher and currently an instructor in the Department of Instruction and Teacher Education at the University of South Carolina. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Nevada, Reno, in Language, Literacy, and Culture and her administrative certification and Masters of Science in Curriculum and Instruction from McDaniel College in Maryland. She worked as a middle and high school English teacher for 13 years in Maryland, and most recently in South Carolina. Her research agenda focuses on teacher induction, literacy attainment (particularly digital and multimodal), and teacher inquiry processes, and she continues conduct professional development, particularly in the areas of National Board candidacy support and teacher action research. She has been published in such journals as: English Journal, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Talking Points, Principal Leadership, and Educational Leadership.
  • Julia Lopez-Robertson
    University of South Carolina
    E-mail Author
    JULIA LÓPEZ-ROBERTSON, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Instruction and Teacher Education at the University of South Carolina. She completed her Ph.D. in Language, Reading, and Culture at the University of Arizona. Her research focuses on the intersections among language, race, ethnicity, and culture as they relate to the teaching and learning of English Learners and their families and in preparing teachers for diverse classrooms. Doctora López-Robertson’s scholarly agenda is built on a commitment to working with children, families, teachers, and preservice teachers in public schools, universities, and communities for the purpose of advancing understandings about emerging bilingual/multilingual students and their families and on the transformation of teacher education to support equitable teaching for all children, particularly English Learners. Doctora López-Robertson recently published Celebrating our cuentos: Choosing and using Latinx literature in Elementary Classrooms (2021) with Scholastic.
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