The Basics of Assessment

Assessment instruments on any level serve at least one of two purposes. One purpose can be to give an individual some indication of actual achievement. The other purpose is to identify trends among groups. The information compiled from standardized tests tells districts how their students are doing in comparison to students in similar situations around the state or nation. From this information, districts can make decisions about the delivery of their educational program. In the classroom, assessments can inform the teacher about the progress of students as a lesson proceeds and of their achievement when instruction has concluded. In all cases, it boils down to gathering information for making decisions. Simple. There’s nothing mystical or magical about this, though it seems that assessment folks often try to make it so. Just read carefully and you’ll see how it all works.

The Basic Terms

Assessment and evaluation are two completely separate activities. So let’s make a clear distinction between them. We cannot ensure that you won’t see them used interchangeably elsewhere, but our hope is that you will have a broader perspective of this important instructional tool. We will further break this down into two types of assessments: formative and summative.


Assessment, whether your version in the classroom or those districtwide high-stakes standardized versions, is the means by which information is gathered to make a variety of decisions. For example, a house may be assessed in terms of size, building materials, location, and number of bedrooms and bathrooms. In the classroom you might assess a student’s skill, knowledge, reasoning, or dispositions. When information about the characteristics or qualities of something or someone is gathered, that constitutes an assessment.

In school, and in your particular classroom, assessment is part of an effective educational strategy because it comes at the beginning (finding out what your students already know) and at the end of instruction (determining what has been learned as a result of the learning experience). In your work as a teacher, there will be times when you need information for purposes of making instructional decisions and other times when you will need to place an academic value on the information gathered. In either case, good assessment is the basis for all that follows.


Since assessment is just the gathering of information, that’s not the part that really bothers test takers. Rather, it’s the next step when the assessment information (data) is compared to some value structure. Evaluation is when value is placed on accumulated assessment data. When a teacher places a value (a grade) on test results, or a tax assessor places value (in dollars) on the assessment of a house, then evaluation has occurred. So you can see that all evaluations include assessments, but not all assessments necessarily include evaluations.

So, assessing and evaluating are two different activities with different guidelines. For assessment the key point is to gather the appropriate data for the decision that needs to be made. For evaluation the key point is in establishing an appropriate value structure to represent the data.

The keys to good evaluation of your students’ progress:

1. Gather the appropriate data (assessment)

2. Establish an appropriate value structure to represent the results (evaluation)

Formative and Summative Assessments: Two of the Most Important Tools in the Box

Though we will also discuss standardized testing, our emphasis is going to be on classroom assessments that a teacher uses. Rather than shifting back and forth between assessment and evaluation, we will make a useful distinction between two types of assessments: formative and summative.

Formative assessments are those data collection activities that a teacher uses to make instructional decisions. Don’t let the “form” in formative confuse this with meaning a “formal” test (whatever that is). In this case we are using data to help formulate our course of instruction. This could be as structured as a lengthy written test given before a lesson or unit begins to find out what your students know. It could be that same test given to the students midway through the lesson to see how things are going—or even at the end but before the final test just to see whether the students have progressed as you desired. But it could also be a pop test here and there or even just the questions that you ask in class to see how things are going with the lesson. It could also be the case that you use a checklist as you monitor student work. In all of these cases you are using the information to make decisions about what you need to do. No grades are assigned, no stickers distributed, no smiley faces or frowns on the student’s lab report. Formative assessments are the means you use to find out how things are going so that you can decide how to proceed. The robust use of formative assessments, if you pay attention to the data you collect, will be the key to providing effective learning experiences for your students.

So, an important aspect of the assessment component of an effective teacher’s strategy will be the consistent use of formative assessments. Rather than plowing through some unit of study and simply having a test (summative assessment) at the end, a teacher who uses formative assessments throughout instruction can monitor the progress of the students and adjust instruction accordingly. This is the purpose of formative assessments.

It is important for you to understand that assessment techniques represent skills that a teacher must develop. Simply asking a class, “Does everybody understand?” will not suffice for a viable formative assessment. Students who do understand will likely answer affirmatively while students who don’t understand may prefer not to make that point known. No one likes to look foolish in front of one’s peers; thus formative assessments must be conducted in a manner that protects the student’s self-concept.

A teacher might conduct formative assessments by asking open-ended questions and watching to see who responds and who does not. One might direct questions at individual students but ask for opinions or rephrasing. The teacher could also ask a question and, upon receiving no response, rephrase the question as if the difficulty had been in the original phrasing. Paper-and-pencil tests, quizzes, checklists, and other exercises that are ungraded protect the selfesteem of a student among classmates but provide the teacher with assessment data that can clarify the instructional route to pursue either with the group or with individuals. 

Summative assessment, which we might typically think of as evaluation, is intended specifically for the purpose of assigning a grade. There is no plan to reteach the topic based upon the assessment results, but instead the teacher considers the instruction for the particular topic to be complete: students will be assessed and evaluated for their mastery of the material, and then the class will move on to the next topic.

When constructing summative assessments, Stiggins (2001) recommends that teachers keep the perspective that the real users of assessment data are the students themselves. Merely receiving a letter or numerical grade advises a student of the value placed on the work, but it does not do anything to clarify the learning that has—or has not—taken place. That is, what questions were answered correctly? Which were incorrect? Assuming that the information was taught because it bears some importance, what does the student still need to learn? Keeping the focus on students and learning as assessments are designed represents the first step toward high-quality assessments. So, while formative assessments are specifically intended to inform the teacher, summative assessments must also communicate effectively with the test taker. And this is true as well if the assessment is one that the teacher completes rather than the student. That is, if the teacher—perhaps in a kindergarten setting—uses checklists or anecdotal notes to assess students as they work, the student still ultimately needs to know whether they are making progress, doing things correctly, or have mastered the lesson. The bottom line? Don’t keep the results a secret from the people who really need to know the results—the students.

Formative and summative assessments are indispensable aspects of effective instruction, but clearly the aims are different. The former is used to modify or plan instruction, the latter for recognizing the level of academic achievement a student has reached. And as you will see in upcoming sections of this unit, assessments are not necessarily a matter of responding in writing to questions on a page. There are many formats that we can use, and it will always be the case that we want to choose a format that is suited to the task at hand and developmentally appropriate for the student.

Formative and Summative Assessment

Formative Assessment:

  • Teacher might ask questions, use observations, or a written test
  • Responses tell the teacher whether students are ready to move on or if students need more instruction

Summative Assessment

  • Teacher might ask questions, use observations, or a written test
  • Responses used to assign a grade; there will be no reteaching