• by Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., and Kristin Grayson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • August 2017 •

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., and Kristin Grayson, Ph.D.Assessments are a critical step in the education process as they determine whether the learning objectives of a lesson have been met. By showing students’ understanding of concepts taught, assessments enable teachers to see if their teaching has been effective. Assessment affects students’ grades, placement, curriculum progress and enrichment, instructional needs, and even school resources and funding.

Assessments must address teaching for understanding through authentic activities that promote higher order thinking and construction of knowledge. Using a backward planning approach to enhance teaching and learning is a renewed approach that challenges the traditional methods of curriculum planning.

In traditional lesson planning, teachers begin with looking at what needs to be taught. They plan lessons, choose activities and teach the material and then give the assessment. Unfortunately, many times teachers don’t know if students have mastered the content because they don’t seek confirmation of learning and lack evidence to show if students have mastered the content.

Also, the activities may not contain evidence of learning and are not selected to match the assessment. As a result, students do poorly on the test. In the past, teachers have even blamed the students for not learning what they were taught.

In backward planning, teachers focus their attention on: (1) knowing the curriculum standards; (2) creating formative and summative (in-class) assessments and reviewing and analyzing state- and district-required assessments to meet the needs of all students; and then (3) designing lessons that integrate these standards and assessments.

Master teachers know their curriculum standards and are competent in designing formative assessments, understanding state assessments and developing lessons that integrate both. They plan for evidence that truly demonstrates student content mastery and student construction of knowledge. This evidence might be shown in students’ oral or written explanations, interpretations, applications, demonstrations of perspective, displaying empathy, and showing meta-cognitive awareness (Wiggins & McTighe, 2012).

In 1998, Wiggins & McTighe introduced the backward planning approach to curriculum design where the destination is designated before mapping the route to be taken. This approach also is used in other disciplines, such as in one of the “habits of highly effective people” by Stephen Covey (2004) – “Begin with the end in mind.”

This planning can occur collaboratively with teachers in their professional learning communities (PLCs) when they are aligning curriculum, assessment and instruction while reviewing student performance data. Principal leaders should establish PLC agendas and protocols so all of this can be accomplished during productive and efficient PLC time periods. Principals and members of the leadership team are the instructional leaders that need to be present at PLC meetings. They need to ensure that they lead and effectively support the full potential of the backward planning approach.

During classroom observations, leaders also should assure that what was discussed in PLCs is implemented during the instructional period. If not, feedback, support and coaching also can assist teachers to enhance their practices.

Three Teacher Roles in Backward Planning

Lesson planning must be purposeful, intentional and lead to effective teaching. In the Universal by Design approach (Wiggins & McTighe, 2012), similar to backward planning, the teacher assumes three different roles. The first is direct teaching, which includes connecting and engaging students to the lesson objective that leads to the essential question, exploring students’ background knowledge and presenting an explanation of the concepts of the lesson being taught.

The second role a teacher assumes is that of a facilitator. The teacher intentionally facilitates authentic student thinking through inquiry-based approaches, such as project based learning and Socratic seminars, reciprocal teaching, differentiation of instruction, use of graphic organizers to represent thinking, and other reflective practices (Avilés & Algasem, 2016).

The third role of a teacher is to be a coach of student learning. As a coach, teachers provide ongoing feedback and encouragement, prompt students to self-reflect and assess themselves, and provide multiple opportunities for independent practice. If the teacher sees that students have not mastered the content to be learned, he or she employs corrective alternative teaching practices. This does not mean re-teaching in the same way, but rather providing opportunities for learning in new ways that take into account students’ different learning styles, preferences and personalities.

Direct teaching, facilitating and coaching all become part of the lesson cycle through planning and implementing presentations, guided lessons and independent practice.

All of the objectives and assessments need to be clarified by the teacher before and during the instructional processes so that the students understand what they are learning, what is expected of them and how they can achieve the goals set by the teacher. This helps students to be successful and demonstrate content competencies by knowing where they’re going and the knowledge and skills they need to learn to maximize achievement (Avilés, 2017). They need to know how they will be assessed on what they will learn and how they will demonstrate what the teacher has taught them. This, in itself, can improve student performance.

Three Types of Assessments

When curriculum and assessments are selected and instructional lessons are planned and implemented, it is important for leaders, teachers and students to understand different types of assessments that might be used. Assessments can occur at various times for distinct purposes, and the teacher should use these assessments to strategically promote and reinforce authentic learning.

Assessments of learning include summative assessments that are used to demonstrate student achievement at the end of a lesson or unit, a quarter of the year, the semester, or the full year as is done on the state test.

Assessments for learning happen during the learning process, and happen frequently and more than once during the lesson or unit. Students know what they are to learn and do, and the teacher assesses them as this learning occurs and then redirects the learning as needed while giving students feedback.

Assessment as learning enables students to reflect on their own learning processes. Through this metacognitive process, students understand their own learning and can then take action and ownership for future learning. Teachers support learning when they clarify the purpose of any assessment and select the method that best serves the instructional context (Earl & Katz, 2006).

Thus, assessments are not only used at the end of the instructional cycle, they are to be used intentionally with the curriculum standards of what is to be learned. Curriculum standards integrated with assessments during the instructional process yield assessment results that are more likely to accurately portray the real evidence of student achievement.

School leaders must be facilitators and supporters of learning (Avilés, 2016). They need to have systems and structures in place that advance teaching teams to design and implement instruction, based on 21st century skills, developing reliable and valid assessments that cultivate lifelong learning.


Avilés, N. (August 2017). “Unlocking Instruction Through Structured Teaching,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas:  Intercultural Development Research Association).

Avilés, N. (March 2016). “Leaders Turnaround Schools – Transformational Equity Focus Makes College Readiness a Priority,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas:  Intercultural Development Research Association).

Avilés, N. & Algasem, N. (September 2016). “Project Based Learning – Changing Learning Paradigms One Lesson at a Time,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas:  Intercultural Development Research Association).

Covey, S.R. (2004). The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, revised edition (New York, N.Y.: Free Press).

Earl, L.M., & S. Katz. (2006). Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind – Assessment for Learning, Assessment as Learning, Assessment of Learning (Winnipeg, Manitoba: Crown in Right of Manitoba).

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). The Understanding by Design Guide to Creating High-Quality Units (Alexandria, Va.: ASCD).

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2012). Understanding by Design Framework (Alexandria, Va.: ASCD).

Nilka Avilés, Ed.D., is an IDRA senior education associate and directs the IDRA STAARS Leaders project. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at nilka.aviles@idra.org. Kristin Grayson, Ph.D., is an IDRA education associate. Comments and questions may be directed to her via email at kristin.grayson@idra.org.

[©2017, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2017 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]