Assessment Design

Note:  This was previously published on the Mastery Transcript Consortium site.

One of the activities I have suggested for educators in my book, Moving Beyond Busy (Solution Tree, 2019), is something I call an “implication dive.” This is how we drive change backward through all teaching and learning systems in schools, as I touched upon in my last post.

The approach is really quite simple. By identifying our mastery domains and credits, we have committed to addressing these as our core learning goals and measures of success. This will affect every system and process, but I like to start out by doing an implication dive on assessment design as this is a key fork in the road. How many times have we tried and failed at meaningful assessment reform? I believe it is because our goals did not change, so why should our practices? As mentioned in the previous blog, by modernizing (or at least adding to) the goals at the center of our environment, change can emanate outwards and through all systems and help with the backwards transformational change I mention.

The Process

So, we start with our premise: We commit to our mastery goals and credits and in creating an environment that allows for their intentional development, demonstration, assessment and reporting. Then, we simply apply a “this means that” framer (not to suggest causality, but implication) to each of the systems we explore. This means that our assessment design should . . .

This process starts with a quick brainstorm and need not be laborious. It often results in a set of principles that help to define the shifts in practice necessary to achieve the organization’s goals for students. In terms of assessment design, the two points that typically come out of such a process are:

  • We need to bring academic and transdisciplinary together as mutually dependent elements of success.
  • We need to revitalize our assessment design as transfer tasks, not acquisition checks.

Most educators working within mastery environments will recognize that feedback must be given within the context of unique tasks and demonstrations of learning goals, and it must be specific to the success criteria of these tasks. The notion of assessment as “grading” needs to be replaced by the idea of assessment as feedback. And, we need a body of feedback in order to help students achieve and demonstrate mastery. In order to do so, I suggest shifting to a “grafted” assessment design approach to address transdisciplinary goals alongside disciplinary ones.

The Essentials: Academic Acumen and Transdisciplinary Skills

A gardener grafts by joining two plants into one. I have co-opted this term to represent the joining of academic standards and transdisciplinary goals (which I call Impacts) into a set of success criteria for a task or demonstration of learning. In the world outside of school, we need to bring both of these elements together in order to be successful. I think we lost touch with this reality through our focus on standards-based grading that put the emphasis too heavily on academic criteria alone. While it’s true that you can’t succeed in life by simply being a good creative thinker, for example, it’s also true that you can’t succeed just by being good at math. We need both academic acumen and transdisciplinary skills and dispositions in order to reach our potential, thrive, and contribute in the future.

The co-joining, or grafting, of various learning goals is already occurring in many schools experienced with competency- and mastery-based approaches. However, it is sometimes not systematized or consistent enough for teacher-designed assessment tasks to serve as continuous sources of valuable feedback on both disciplinary and transdisciplinary goals.

Below is a simple example of a straight standards-based design and a simple grafted design. The first example is a very traditional example of a Grade 5 English assessment task with CCSS included. The second, grafted example is not the best assessment in the world, but it is included here to show the relative ease with which we can both extend the assessment and embed transdisciplinary skills and dispositions that are part of our mastery domains and credits.

Content-Only Assessment
Task Academic Criteria
Write a plot summary of a piece of writing. Include a timeline of events. Use direct references to the text to describe an important event. RI.5.1: “Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.”
RL.5.5: “Explain how a series of chapters, scenes, or stanzas fits together to provide the overall structure


Grafted Assessment
Task Academic Criteria Transdisciplinary (Impact) Criteria
Think of the story you read as communicating a journey. Create a visual map of this journey, including a legend that helps describe different parts of that journey (an obstacle, a turn, a meeting). Choose what you feel is an important point on your map, and describe, in character, what might have happened if the character chose their actions differently. RI.5.1: “Quote accurately from a text when explaining what the text says explicitly and when drawing inferences from the text.”
RL.5.5: “Explain how a series of chapters, scenes, or stanzas fits together to provide the overall structure
Creative Thinking
Idea generation: Students can use divergent thinking to expand on known ideas to create new and imaginative combinations.

Expressiveness: Students can apply creative capacities to the communications they undertake.

Global Mindedness
Systems thinking: Students can create a representation of a system to demonstrate its composition and behaviors.
Empathy: Students can imagine other people’s points of view and experiences.

Source: Greg Curtis, Moving Beyond Busy, Solution Tree (2019), p. 68.


The second insight that usually arises from the assessment design implication design (mentioned above) is a realization that the fundamental purpose for assessments needs to change and this fundamentally affects design. The difference in task design in the example above illustrates this to a degree.

We cannot ask students to demonstrate growth mindset, systems thinking, innovation, or empathy if assessment design is static and binary in nature. By static, I mean that the task is fixed, standardized and is largely based on students answering acquisition-based questions. By binary, I mean that the answers a student provides are generally correct or incorrect, with some gradients in between.

Transdisciplinary goals cannot be demonstrated through stand-alone assessments. Students need to be doing something in order to demonstrate them! We can’t assess their creative thinking by giving them a test where they name 10 different ways to generate ideas. They need to demonstrate their use of tools and strategies to think creatively within the context of content. It’s not enough to demonstrate what we know about something, but what we can do with what we’ve learned using transdisciplinary skills and dispositions.

This is to say that students need to demonstrate their learning (both academic and transdisciplinary) by engaging in transfer tasks that require them to use this learning and take it further. Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins have done a great deal of wonderful work on the concept of transfer, so I won’t repeat all of this here. Jay and I have also written about this extensively in both editions of Leading Modern Learning (Solution Tree, 2016 and 2019).

Situations and Experiences

The implication of committing to a mastery-based approach that includes both academic and transdisciplinary goals is that we need to focus assessment design on transfer tasks. In simple terms, a transfer task is one that has a level of novelty (the situation is not one that students encountered in previous learning experiences), appropriately complex (there is a higher level of ambiguity and no single correct answer), and students engage in the task with a higher level of independence (they call the shots). This requires teachers to move from creating assignments and tests to designing situations and experiences for kids to demonstrate what they have learned and, often, take their learning further in the process.

Recognizing these two implications moves us a great distance in developing our learning model (Phase 3 of MTC’s Journey Towards Mastery Learning). And, it is an important step to take early. We need to understand how students will be enabled to produce quality demonstrations of learning goals before we start with programmatic approaches. Powerful evidence and purposeful feedback is central to success. You may want to try such an implication dive with your team, or extend the process to look at curriculum design, grading, reporting, and other systems.

In the next article in this series, I would like to explore assessment feedback (what we used to call “grading”). This is a key element to get right, especially when we are dealing with transdisciplinary goals alongside academic standards. Please feel free to leave any questions below that you would like me to address.