Everyone has an opinion today about whether school assessments are good for students, how many assessments students should be taking each year, and the effects of assessments on students’ well-being.

Those who are opposed to assessments often worry that schools are spending too much time testing, which eats into instructional time. They are also concerned that testing can narrow the scope of instruction, if teachers primarily spend class time “teaching to the test.” Some are specifically concerned about the Smarter Balanced Assessment because it is an online test, and/or because it is predicted to be more difficult than previous statewide assessments; there is a fear that students will find this more difficult test to be stressful.

In contrast, those who support the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test  (SBAC) expect the computer adaptive format to provide a more accurate picture of what students know and are able to do. This is because the test will adjust based on each individual student’s responses; students who answer questions correctly will receive more difficult next questions, while students who answer incorrectly will receive less difficult questions. Proponents of the format expect this to eliminate student frustration and stress, but also capture a more individualized picture of each student’s learning.

SBAC supporters also espouse the value of finally having an objective way to measure our students’ achievement from school to school, district to district and state to state. They are excited that the new assessment was derived from the new Common Core standards, and will better measure the skills that today’s children need in order to be successful in college and career.

Having written before about where we stand on this argument, we thought that today we’d inject into this dialogue some information about the different types of assessments we find in schools, and the purposes they serve. This discussion is particularly important today, given the rising concern that there is too much testing happening in schools. Just what are all these tests, and how are they related to each other?

Hattie and Timperley Quote

Quite simply, the only way that a teacher knows if a student has learned something is to require the student to demonstrate that knowledge in some way. Assessments help teachers and students to pinpoint which aspects of instruction need to be adjusted to help a student acquire a learning goal. But there are two different types of assessments that happen throughout a student’s academic career.

[expand title=”Assessment FOR Learning” tag=h3]Formative assessments, sometimes called “Assessments for Learning,” occur continuously during the teaching and learning process. These opportunities to check for understanding are embedded into the teacher’s lesson through different tactics such as examining a student’s work, or having a conversation with a student. The student often does not even know he/she is being assessed.

Once a teacher uses a formative assessment, he/she can then adjust his/her instruction, as needed, to improve students’ understanding. Formative assessments are not used for grading or for public communication.

There is a lot of research on the effectiveness of using formative assessments in the classroom. When teachers have timely feedback, they can significantly improve student achievement for several reasons. This form of assessment helps students to better understand the learning objectives, see models and examples of strong work, and learn to self-assess and monitor their learning. Formative assessment helps teachers to plan more effective lessons, provide concrete feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of student work, and differentiate their instruction based on student need.

As an example, after a driving instructor shows a student the procedures for driving a vehicle, the student has to actually demonstrate to the instructor that he/she can follow those steps in the correct sequence. The driving instructor observes the student’s performance, commends the student on what he/she has performed correctly, and then re-teaches what the student has not yet learned.

Eventually, when the student has shown that he/she can drive a car successfully with little intervention, the student driver will need to demonstrate that ability again by taking a formal driving test. This assessment will determine if the student has mastered the skills necessary for a driver’s license. It’s a second type of test, a summative assessment, which is administered at the end of instruction and it is focused on accountability and mastery.[/expand]


[expand title=”Assessment OF Learning” tag=h3]Assessments of learning, or summative assessments, are used to determine whether students have mastered the content or skills that were expected during a unit of study. This type of assessment can be a chapter test, a district benchmark assessment, a statewide assessment, a college entrance exam, or a completed project, to name a few examples. A summative assessment is a post-mortem on learning. At the time of the administration, it is assumed that learning has taken place and it is time to move on to higher level learning.

Summative assessments, such as chapter tests or spelling tests, can be conducted at the classroom level to provide report grades that will communicated to students, parents, and educators. These forms of summative assessment provide information about whether individual students have obtained mastery, against standards or benchmarks.

There are also statewide summative tests, such as the CMT or Smarter Balanced Assessments. The results of these tests are shared publicly and often form the basis of larger decisions about education policy. For instance, the statewide test tells us which districts are facing the largest challenges and need greater support. They may need to reflect on their curricula, instructional practices, professional development programs, or wraparound services. The statewide assessment also allows us to tell when districts are performing particularly well, which may help us to pinpoint instructional practices that should be replicated elsewhere.

A statewide summative assessment also lets us look at subgroup performance, which is beneficial for policy planning and resource allocation. Without a statewide, summative assessment, we wouldn’t be able to monitor Connecticut’s achievement gap. We wouldn’t know that we aren’t appropriately educating large groups of students, such as minority students and students from low-income families.[/expand]


[expand title=”Knowing the Difference Between the Two Types of Assessment” tag=h3]

Test Users TableIn essence, formative assessments provide opportunities to adjust instruction, while summative
assessments measure whether learning has taken place when instruction is complete. As is pointed out in the video below about the distinction between formative and summative assessments, in addition to serving different purposes, these assessments also have different users.


School systems need to provide opportunities for both types of assessment–formative and summative. They perform different, important roles and should be part of a balanced assessment system. Having said that, it is also important for educators to limit the number of assessments that they administer. Educators need to be prudent in their choices and ensure that–above all else–instructional time is maximized for learning.

Click here » for a chart of Connecticut’s commonly used assessments.


2 thoughts on “Demystifying Student Assessment

  1. Jason Morris says:

    From CTPost (http://www.ctpost.com/local/article/Teacher-survey-says-new-test-brings-some-students-6276559.php)

    “The new test linked to the Common Core is causing a number of students to cry.

    So says a new survey, conducted by theConnecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

    The results show most teachers don’t like theSmarter Balanced Assessment Consortium test, which links to the Common Core curriculum standards, very much, and that nine out of 10 teachers say it is putting students’ emotional well-being and learning time at risk.”

    How do we support tests that result in this?

    • CCER says:

      Leaving aside that we have not actually seen the complete survey and therefore don’t know if the survey questions were designed to produce meaningful feedback–there are also questions about the audience that these results really represent. For instance, the 85.6% who agreed with the statement you have cited from the CEA survey represent only 822 teachers, out of the CEA’s membership of 43,000. This means that under 2% of CEA’s membership have actually indicated agreement with the statement in question. (Here’s a link to the CEA’s survey results, from which we’ve taken these numbers: http://bit.ly/1IRisBB.) It’s a bit of a stretch to draw the conclusion that “most” or “9 out of 10 teachers” say the test puts students’ emotional well-being at risk.

      The issues of who is being asked and how are important problems to address, before we draw sweeping conclusions about the validity of SBAC.

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