Shifting Your Assessments To Grow Higher-Level Thinking

by Beckie Stobaugh, TeachThought PD Workshop Facilitator

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As a new principal, I sat at my desk reviewing classroom assessments, I dropped my head in dismay. It was no wonder our students were receiving high marks on classroom assessments—almost all the questions required students to recall memorized information. However, our state assessment and content standards demanded higher levels of thinking.  Due to this misalignment, our school results on the state assessment were expectedly low.

Often, teachers create assessments at a Remember level, the lowest level of thinking in Bloom’s taxonomy (Anderson & Krathwohl 2001). Madaus, West, Harmon, Lomax, and Viator (1992) determined that only three percent of assessment items on tests represented high-level conceptual knowledge and only about five percent of the total items sampled assessed higher-level thinking skills of any type. The other ninety-five percent of items sampled involved low-level skills of recalling information, calculating, and using formulas to solve routine problems similar to problems worked in the textbook or in class. These results are echoed by Goodlad (2004), who reported that ninety percent of the time in schools, teachers relayed information to students from a textbook and then assessed them on their memorization of this information.

With a large portion of teacher-designed tests assessing at a low level, students may think that education is more about memorizing facts than thinking deeply to develop conceptual understandings. Since students typically perform better on low-level thinking items, teachers may presume that their students are more capable than they are because students were not expected to think at high levels. However, when students are called upon to use high-level processes on state and national assessments, those who have not regularly employed these thinking skills will be unprepared.

As a new principal, I was aware that my school’s math scores were relatively low in comparison to the scores in other academic areas. I observed one teacher and noticed that students were completing all the formula-type questions. Students were not using the math skills in the kind of real-world word problems that were included on the state assessment. This misalignment was causing our students to be unprepared for the state assessment. The math teachers collaboratively revised their assessments and instructional tasks to include more real-world problems that required critical thinking and problem-solving. Their hard work over the course of three years led to a 32 percent increase on the state assessment scores. To prepare students appropriately for state assessments as well as life, teachers must develop classroom assessments with high levels of cognitive complexity.

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One way to boost the level of thinking is through the use of scenarios and real-world applications of students’ knowledge. By including new introductory materials, tasks and assessments will move beyond the Remember level on Bloom’s taxonomy to increasing levels of cognitive complexity. Scenarios, real-world examples, and authentic tasks are a way to infuse deep cognitive thinking into lessons and assessments in an engaging context (Stobaugh 2013).

When designing authentic learning experiences, identify the content standards first. Then, determine ways to apply information in a new way, for example, identify a real-world audience or situation. Consider that as students respond to these real-world situations, students might produce a variety of products demonstrating their high-level thinking. To spur your thinking, review the assessment examples in Table 1.

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As you examine your own assessments, select a few to revise to incorporate more scenarios, real-world examples, and authentic tasks. These real-world assessments will provide accurate data of whether you students can apply their learning while granting students the opportunity to utilize their knowledge to solve real problems. After all, thinking is key to learning.

Table 1. Real-World Assessment Examples


You want to get the best buy on a cell phone plan.

A.    If you currently have a phone, compare the services and charges of your phone company to one other company. If not, select two cell phone companies to compare.

B.    Using Excel or another software program, create a chart showing the factors that contribute to the total cost of the phone service.

C.    Explain which phone is the best deal.


Fifty dollars has been donated to our school to launch an environmental initiative to reduce, reuse, and/or recycle.

A.    In your group, determine the best way to reduce, reuse, and/or recycle using no more than $50.

B.    Using a presentation technology (e.g., Prezi), create a persuasive presentation to show our school administrators and community leaders that your idea will have the largest impact.

English/Language Arts

Several students have been complaining about bullying in our school.

A.    Identify reasons why these students might believe bullying is a problem in our school.

B.    Create a satiric cartoon OR article to be published in the school newspaper to showcase the problem of bullying. If you choose a cartoon, you may use ToonDoo, Pixton, or another online comic generator.

Social Studies

It’s election time in our community! Your task is to create a product that convinces teens to vote for a candidate.

A.    Research the candidates running for office.

B.    Select one candidate and create a product that creatively persuades teens to vote for your candidate.



Anderson, L.W., & Krathwohl, D.R. (Eds.). (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (complete edition). New York: Longman.

Goodlad, J. I. (2004). A place called school (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Madaus, G. F., West, M. M., Harmon, M. C., Lomax, R. G., & Viator, K. A. (1992). The influence of testing on teaching math and science in grades 4–12: Executive summary. Chestnut Hill, MA: Boston College, Center for the Study of Testing, Evaluation, and Educational Policy.

Stobaugh, R. (2013). Assessing critical thinking in middle and high schools: Meeting the Common Core. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Stobaugh, R. (2013). Assessing critical thinking in elementary schools: Meeting the Common Core. Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

*also published at; image attribution: University of Wolverhampton


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