Imagine journeying through an unknown terrain without a map or a compass. Navigating the complexities and uncertainties would be quite a challenge, right? In many ways, the realm of learning can be likened to this landscape, with education serving as the adventure and assessments as the compass, guiding the way. They illuminate the path of knowledge, providing crucial feedback on where we’ve been, where we stand, and which direction we should be heading.
Assessments are far more than just numerical scores or letter grades; they are the navigational tools of the educational journey, bridging the gap between teaching and learning.
Assessments enable educators to measure students’ understanding, enhance instruction, and allocate resources more effectively. Policymakers, too, rely on them to evaluate and refine education programs.
In this post, I’ll cover 6 major types of assessment. As we navigate through diagnostic, formative, summative, norm-referenced, criterion-referenced, and interim/benchmark assessments, we will gain insights into how they collectively enhance the learning experience.
Related: Teachers Guide to Performance-based Assessment
Types of Assessment Table
This table provides a simplified comparison of the 6 assessment types I covered in this post. The actual use and benefits of these assessments can vary based on their implementation in different educational settings.
|Assessment Type||Purpose||When It’s Used||Examples|
|Diagnostic||Gauge students’ prior knowledge and identify learning gaps||At the beginning of a learning period||Pre-tests, pre-assessments|
|Formative||Monitor student learning during the instructional process||During the learning process||Quizzes, classroom discussions, homework|
|Summative||Measure student competence after a structured instructional period||At the end of a learning period||End-of-chapter tests, final projects, standardized exams|
|Norm-Referenced||Compare a student’s performance to a larger group||Anytime within the learning period, usually for benchmarking||College entrance exams (SAT, ACT)|
|Criterion-Referenced||Measure student performance against a fixed set of predetermined criteria||Anytime within the learning period, usually after covering specific content||High school proficiency exams,|
|Interim/Benchmark||Provide periodic snapshots of student learning||Several times throughout the academic year||District benchmarks, unit tests|
1. Diagnostic Assessment
Diagnostic Assessment is typically used at the onset of new learning segments. Its primary purpose is to gauge students’ prior knowledge and skillsets, identify potential learning gaps, and inform instructional strategies. Think of it as a pre-assessment that helps teachers customize their teaching methods to cater to individual student needs.
Examples of Diagnostic assessment:
Here are a few examples of diagnostic assessments that teachers can use:
- Pre-tests: These are administered before a new unit or lesson is started to determine what students already know about the topic. This can be in the form of multiple-choice questions, short-answer questions, or essays.
- Entry Tickets: At the start of a class, teachers can ask students to write a response to a question related to the day’s topic. This can help teachers gauge students’ prior knowledge and tailor the lesson accordingly.
- Self-Assessment Questionnaires: These can help students reflect on their own understanding of a topic. They can include questions about students’ confidence in the topic, areas they struggle with, or even their interest in the subject matter.
- KWL Charts: KWL stands for “Know”, “Want to Know”, and “Learned”. At the start of a new unit, teachers can ask students to fill out the “Know” and “Want to Know” sections. This not only helps teachers assess what students already know, but also what they are curious to learn.
- Concept Maps: Students are asked to draw a map linking different concepts related to a topic. This helps teachers to understand students’ grasp of how these concepts relate to each other.
- Diagnostic Interviews: Teachers conduct one-on-one interviews with students to gauge their understanding of a topic. This can provide in-depth insight into a student’s knowledge, misconceptions, and learning processes.
2. Formative Assessment
Formative Assessment takes place during the learning process and serves as an ongoing check on students’ understanding. These are informal, low-stakes assessments that offer teachers insights into where students are succeeding and where they might need more support.
Examples of formative assessments:
Here are some practical examples of formative assessments:
- Exit Tickets: At the end of a class, teachers can ask students to write a quick summary of what they learned, or respond to a specific question. This helps teachers gauge what students understood from the lesson.
- Think-Pair-Share: In this strategy, teachers pose a question, students think individually about their answer, pair up with a partner to discuss their thoughts, and then share their responses with the class. This facilitates peer learning and gives teachers an opportunity to assess understanding.
- Quizzes: Short quizzes can be a quick way to assess whether students understand the material. They don’t have to be graded, and can instead be used to provide immediate feedback and identify areas of struggle.
- Classroom Polling: Teachers can use polling software to ask a question, with students answering in real-time on their devices. This provides immediate feedback on student understanding.
- Journal Entries: Teachers can ask students to write regular reflections on what they’ve learned, questions they have, or difficulties they’re experiencing. This can provide valuable insights into student thinking and progress over time.
- Learning Logs: Similar to journal entries, students keep a log of what they’ve learned in each lesson. This not only helps students reflect on their learning but also gives teachers insight into student comprehension.
- Peer Review: Students review and provide feedback on each other’s work. This helps students learn from each other and gives teachers insight into their understanding.
3. Summative Assessment
Summative Assessment, in contrast, occurs at the end of a learning period. It measures the level of student competence after a structured instructional period, like a unit, semester, or an entire academic year. Summative assessments are high-stakes tests like end-of-chapter tests, standardized state exams, final projects, or end-of-term exams. They provide a comprehensive overview of student learning and are often used for grading purposes.
Examples of summative assessment:
Here are some examples of summative assessments:
- Standardized Tests: These are often state-administered tests that measure students’ understanding of the curriculum. They provide a final benchmark of a student’s learning for the year.
- End-of-Unit or Chapter Tests: These tests, often composed of a variety of question types (multiple choice, short answer, essay, etc.), evaluate student learning at the end of each unit or chapter.
- Final Exams: Given at the end of a semester or school year, final exams assess a student’s understanding of a wider range of materials covered over a longer period.
- Research Projects: These comprehensive projects require students to apply a range of skills and knowledge learned throughout the course. They often culminate in a written report or presentation.
- Portfolios: A portfolio is a collection of student work that demonstrates their learning progress and achievements. It may include a variety of work samples, such as essays, problem sets, journal entries, and projects.
- Presentations: Oral presentations or demonstrations can be a way for students to show what they’ve learned, often integrating multiple skills such as research, organization, public speaking, and use of technology.
- Term Papers or Essays: These in-depth pieces of writing require students to synthesize and analyze information learned over a period, showcasing their understanding and writing skills.
While summative assessments are useful for summarizing what students have learned and for assigning grades, it’s important to remember that they should be used in conjunction with other forms of assessment to provide a holistic view of student learning.
4. Norm-Referenced Assessment
Norm-Referenced Assessment compares a student’s performance to a larger group, typically their peers on a national level. The purpose is not necessarily to measure a student’s understanding of specific content, but rather to see where they stand in comparison to others. Common examples are college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT.
Examples of Norm-Referenced Assessment
Here are a few examples of norm-referenced assessments:
- Standardized Tests: Tests like the SAT, ACT, or IQ tests are norm-referenced, designed to compare students’ scores to each other rather than measure their understanding of a specific curriculum.
- Percentile Ranks: Often used in large-scale assessments, percentile ranks compare a student’s performance to that of their peers. For instance, a student in the 85th percentile performed better than 85% of the norm group.
- Grade Equivalent Scores: These scores compare a student’s performance on a test with the average performance of students in other grades. For example, a 5th grade student receiving a 7th grade equivalent score on a test demonstrated a level of knowledge typically seen in 7th grade students.
- Stanine Scores (Standard Nine): These scores range from 1 to 9 and are used to compare student performance. A score of 5, for example, would indicate that the student has performed better than approximately half of the students in the norm group.
- Standard Scores: These scores show how far a student’s performance is from the average in terms of standard deviation units. For instance, on many IQ tests, a score of 100 is the average and each 15 points represents one standard deviation above or below the mean.
- Normal Curve Equivalent (NCE) Scores: These are commonly used in federal reporting. NCE scores range from 1 to 99, with 50 representing the median.
It’s important to remember that norm-referenced assessments compare students to each other, which can be useful for identifying outliers or general trends, but they don’t provide specific feedback about individual student learning like criterion-referenced or formative assessments do.
5. Criterion-Referenced Assessment
Criterion-Referenced Assessment measures student performance against a fixed set of predetermined criteria or learning standards. These assessments evaluate whether a student has mastered specific learning objectives. High school proficiency exams and driver’s license tests are examples of criterion-referenced assessments.
Examples of Criterion-Referenced Assessment
Here are some examples of criterion-referenced assessment:
- Standardized Achievement Tests: While some standardized tests are norm-referenced, others are criterion-referenced. Tests like certain state end-of-grade exams, evaluate students based on their understanding of the state’s learning standards.
- Chapter or Unit Tests: Often teachers design tests for the end of a chapter or unit in the curriculum that measure students’ understanding of the key concepts and skills taught during that unit.
- Driver’s License Exam: This is an example of a real-world criterion-referenced test. To pass, you need to meet a certain standard of knowledge and skill, regardless of how other test-takers perform.
- Certification Exams: Many professions require passing a certification exam to demonstrate mastery of necessary skills and knowledge, such as the bar exam for lawyers or the licensing exams for teachers.
- Mastery Checks/Quizzes: These are quick assessments that check whether students have achieved mastery on a particular skill or concept.
- Rubric-Based Assessments: A rubric outlines specific criteria that students should meet in their work. This can be used for essays, projects, presentations, etc. Each criterion in the rubric represents a specific skill or part of the learning objective.
6. Interim/Benchmark Assessment
Interim/Benchmark Assessment is administered several times throughout the academic year, and provides educators with regular, periodic snapshots of student learning. These assessments are helpful for tracking student progress, predicting future performance, and informing instruction in a timely manner. They serve as a bridge between formative and summative assessments.
Examples of Interim/Benchmark Assessment
Here are some illustrative examples of interim/benchmark assessment:
- District Benchmark Assessments: Many school districts administer benchmark tests at various points during the school year. These tests are typically aligned to state standards and used to predict student performance on end-of-year standardized tests.
- Midterm Exams: Midterms provide a check-in point halfway through the semester or term. They give teachers a sense of how well students have grasped the material thus far and indicate areas that may need reteaching or review.
- Course Progress Tests: These are tests given at certain points during a course to assess student understanding of the material covered up to that point.
- Reading Level Assessments: Tools like the Fountas & Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System or the Developmental Reading Assessment (DRA) are used periodically throughout the year to assess a student’s reading level.
- Practice Standardized Tests: Taking a practice version of a standardized test can help teachers understand how students are likely to perform on the actual test. This can inform instruction and provide valuable practice for students.
- Periodic Skill Checks: Brief assessments on specific skills can serve as interim assessments, providing information on student progress and areas of need.
These interim/benchmark assessments can provide valuable data to inform instruction, allowing educators to identify areas of strength and weakness in their students’ understanding, make data-driven decisions about instruction, and provide targeted interventions if necessary.
Each of these assessment types offers its unique contributions to the educational process. While they serve different purposes, they all collectively enhance the overall learning experience by providing targeted, timely feedback and driving informed instructional decisions. Remember, the goal is not to label or rank students, but to better understand their learning needs and guide them on their path to academic success.