Assessment Education Perspectives

Differentiating Assessment: What Is the Goal of Assessment?

As practicing classroom teachers, we discuss differentiating instruction to meet the needs of each unique learner, but when was the last time you had a conversation about differentiating assessment? Stop. Think for a minute about that concept. What does differentiating assessment mean for you and for your students?

The concept came up in a course I teach for practicing classroom teachers in an advanced assessment specialization. My students, like most learners, like to see exemplars and samples of assignments. When students from previous courses give me permission, I post their work on the current course. I also have current students share their work to create a community of learners within the course. However, I do this with several caveats: each of us has a unique ‘worldview’ (Sullo, 2013) and our work reflects it. So, what does this have to do with assessment?

Each student interprets learning activities, i.e., ‘assignments’ through their own lens. The specific assignment for my class was to develop his/her own definition of assessment literacy. They then posted the definition on a discussion board and provided feedback to their classmates using a rubric. One student sent me an e-mail seeking clarification. The student definitions posted ranged from three paragraphs to five pages. Which one was correct? This was my response:

“Yes, the definition assignments range from three paragraphs to five pages. Some have diagrams. Some have charts. In my assessment of this assignment, I am looking for evidence of truly understanding what assessment literacy is. Therefore, I give students a wide range to express their understandings in the assignment. If they need to ‘think aloud’ and put everything in it, that is fine. If they succinctly bullet the information, but show synthesis, that is fine. It is an individual approach. That is applying the principles of Universal Design for Learning to the assignment from the evaluation perspective. Students are allowed multiple means of representation.

As you can see, evaluating each assignment is as complicated as differentiating instruction. While I do use only one holistic rubric, it allows me, the instructor, to provide feedback aligned to the developmental stages of the learner. Assessment, too, must be differentiated for how each student processes information. That is why I get so frustrated when students ask me for samples and exemplars. How you provide evidence of understanding is very different from how someone else does.

Tweet: Differentiating Assessment: What is the Goal of Assessment? #edchatSo, I guess what I am trying to say here is this:

  1. Start to be aware that assessment should be as individual as the concept of differentiating instruction. You must interpret your students’ responses in light of their world view. If you have only one set way students are supposed to respond — seriously think about how severely you are limiting their thinking.
  2. Stop comparing your work to others in this class. I have you share your work so you can get a wonderful flavor of the multiple ways of approaching assignments. There is NO ONE right way. When I feel you are missing elements, I tell you. Carefully read the feedback I provide within the rubric. Have some confidence in your thinking. Have some confidence in your ability to apply these assignments to your own teaching and learning. My goal is for each of you to increase your knowledge and apply it to your world view and thus your teaching practice.”

How are you using assessment data to create equity in your classroom? The truly assessment literate teacher “understands the range of types and multiple purposes of assessment and how to design, adapt, or select appropriate assessments to address specific learning goals and individual differences, and to minimize sources of bias” (InTASC Model Core Teaching Standards and Learning Progression for Teachers Standard #6: Assessment, (CCSSO’s Interstate Teacher Assessment and Support Consortium). Do you have a personalized learning goal around differentiating assessment FOR learning?


Sullo, B. (2013). The Inspiring Teacher: Making a Positive Difference in Student’s Lives. New Jersey: Funderstanding, LLC.

Dee Fabry

Dr. Dee Fabry is an Associate Professor in the Sanford College of Education, National University, La Jolla, California. She has served in many capacities in higher education, including as an Associate Provost and Department Chair. Dee is one of the founding leaders of the new Master of Science in Advanced Teaching Practices (MS ATP). She co-authored the Advanced Assessment Literacy Specialization for the MS ATP. Dr. Fabry’s own teaching practice encompasses pre-school through higher education. She taught Grades 3, 4, 6, and 7 in public education in West Virginia and Colorado. She is a Reading Specialist and created an inquiry-based reading program for at-risk seventh grade learners with formative assessment FOR learning as a key component. She was awarded a Ph.D. from University of Colorado at Denver; an M.A. from Webster University; Reading Specialist Certification, University of Colorado at Boulder; B.A. Fairmont State College, Elementary Education; B.A. West Virginia University, Classical Languages.