Opening Assessment to Our Students


Diane Hart

A few years ago, middle school teacher Jane Hancock was attending a conference on portfolio assessment when the person sitting next to her leaned over and whispered, “If I opened your gradebook right now, what would I see?” “Nothing,” Hancock whispered back, “except absences and tardies.”1

After Hancock implemented portfolio-based assessment in her classes, she stopped putting grades on assignments and in her gradebook. Instead, she annotates her students’ work with comments and suggestions for improvement. Toward the end of each quarter, Hancock meets with students individually to review their portfolios. In preparation for these conferences, her students write her a letter in which they evaluate their own work.

By the time she finishes these conferences, Hancock knows each student’s work and course grade. Moreover, her students also agree with her assessment. Since implementing this grading system, Hancock reports, “no one has questioned or contested a grade.”

When Hancock began her new grading system, assessment was assumed to be the exclusive domain of teachers and administrators. Armed with red pencils, weekly tests, and report cards, they alone were responsible for evaluating student achievement and assigning grades. Students were the objects of this evaluation exercise, not participants in it. As Massachusetts teacher Ron Berger observed at that time:

When educators talk of assessment, they generally think in terms of documented assessment systems. A completely different level of assessment takes place in the individual student, who is constantly assessing her own work, deciding what is right and wrong, what fits and what does not, what is a “good enough” job. This self-appraisal is the ultimate locus of all standards.2


Student Self-Assessment

There are many ways to bring students into the assessment process, as well as reasons for doing so. Teachers who make self-evaluation a routine part of their assessment program find they no longer have to correct and grade every paper a student produces. More importantly, when students take on increased responsibility for evaluating their own work, they begin to internalize instructional goals and standards and to apply them to future efforts. With this growth in autonomy comes a sense of ownership of one’s own learning and growth.

Students can begin to develop the habit of self-assessment very early. A kindergarten teacher in Florida discovered this for herself when she posted a scale of children’s writing development on a bulletin board in her classroom. The teacher explained to her students how writing develops in stages and suggested that they might want to determine where their own work fit on the scale. To her amazement, most of her kindergartners identified the level of their work quite accurately. Using their new understanding of the writing process, many students began to take more risks in their work.

In many classrooms, the self-assessment habit begins with collaborative goal-setting. In this process, teachers and students work together to establish their instructional goals for the class. These goals may incorporate state or district content standards as well as other desired outcomes. Once identified, the goals are posted in the classroom where they can be referred to as often as needed. From time to time, students are asked to reflect on their progress towards their goals.


Evaluative Questions

Teachers use a number of tools to encourage student self-assessment. The simplest are evaluative questions that push students to think about their work and growth as learners. Good self-assessment questions also encourage metacognition, or thinking about how we think and learn. Here are a few examples:

Evaluative Questions


> What goals did you set for yourself in this project and how well did you achieve them?


> What would you do differently if you could do this project again?


> Why did you choose this example of your work for your portfolio? What does it show about your growth as a critical thinker?


> What did you find out about your problem-solving skills and strategies while doing this activity?


> What did you learn about working in groups while doing this assignment?


> What did you find most difficult about making your presentation?


> What new questions did your research for this project raise?


> What is the most valuable advice you could give to students who are involved in similar projects in the future?


Teachers who want to encourage self-assessment use evaluative questions frequently in conversations with individual students and in group discussions. Many teachers also make such questions the focus of journal or learning log entries.


Self-Evaluation Forms

Self-evaluation forms, checklists, and rubrics are also useful tools for helping students to assess their own work. Whatever form they take, such tools communicate to students the standards by which we want them to judge their own performance.



This group project self-evaluation form was developed for use with middle school students. It encourages students to reflect on their performance as members of a team.


Group Project Self-Evaluation3


Name: ____________________________________ Date: ________________


Doing a group project requires lots of time and effort. Please mark this form according to your contributions to this project. For the areas below, fill in a number on the line rating your contribution from 1 to 6, six being the highest.


___ I understand the project assignment and was able to help my group understand our task.


___ I worked cooperatively with others.


___ I took responsibility for some part of the project.


___ I worked to the best of my ability and didn’t waste time.


___ I was willing to share ideas with my group.


On the remainder of this sheet (use the back if necessary), write a short description of what your role was in this project. What did you do? How long did you spend doing it? How hard did you work? How did you interact with the others in your group? Where did you get your ideas? What research did you do, and what specific books, papers, primary sources, etc., did you use?



This portfolio self-evaluation form
is used by high school history
students to assess their work
and growth as learners.
The questions are designed
to help students reflect on
both their strengths and
areas in need of improvement.




History Portfolio Self-Evaluation4


Name: ____________________________________ Date: ________________


1. What historical topic or period is covered by your portfolio?


2. What is your main purpose in putting this portfolio together?


3. Describe the contents of your portfolio.


4. What criteria did you use in selecting work for your portfolio?


5. What do you think is the best piece of work in your portfolio? Explain why.


6. What is the piece of work with which you are least satisfied? Explain why.


7. As you look at all the work in your portfolio, what areas do you think most need improvement?


8. What do you think your portfolio shows about your strengths and growth as a history student?




This last form was created to help students assess asignments done over a semester in their history notebooks.


Notebook Evaluation Sheet5


Name: ____________________________________ Date: ________________


Before turning in your notebooks, grade yourself on each of the assignments below as well as on Visual Appearance and Extras. Grade yourself fairly and honestly; I will grade you as well. I will tell you clearly what I am looking for. Keep in mind that my grade is binding, but if there is a discrepancy, you may politely arrange a time to meet with me to discuss the difference in assessment. After we meet, I reserve the right to change the grade if I made an error in judgment; however, I also reserve the right to stick to my original grade.


Notebook Entry Date Possible Student Teacher

Points Assessment Assessment
















Visual Appearance


Student Comments




Teacher Comments


For all the changes in assessment over the past few years, many teachers remain reluctant to open the process to students. As Grant Wiggins, a leading authority on authentic assessment, observed in 1990:

Some teachers may need to do some soul searching about whether students are too dependent on them for directions, standards, or judgment. The whole point is to put students in a self-disciplined, self-regulating, self-assessing position.6

Both statements are as true today as they were a decade ago. Teaching students how to evaluate their own performance should be, ultimately, “the whole point” of assessment.


1. Jane Hancock, “But. . . What About Grades,” Portfolio News (Winter 1991): 3.

2. Vito Perrone, ed., Expanding Student Assessment (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1991), 37.

3. Janet Mulder, “Performance Based Assessments Empower Students to Succeed in History,” Presentation to the California Council for the Social Studies (March 1994).

4. Courtesy of the author.

5. Bert Bower, Jim Lobdell, and Lee Swenson, History Alive: Engaging All Learners in the Diverse Classroom (Menlo Park, CA: Addison Wesley Publishing Co., 1994), 158.

6. Linda Varus, “Put Portfolios to the Test,” Instructor (August 1990): 51.

Diane Hart is the author of a book on assessment, Authentic Assessment (1993), published by Addison-Wesley, as well as several social studies textbooks. She presently works as a social studies consultant on the Kentucky Commonwealth Accountability Testing System, and is a member of the NCSS Board of Directors.

©1999 National Council for the Social Studies. All rights reserved.