Purpose of Assessments
Assessments come in many forms, in part because they serve many purposes, and those purposes often vary by the stakeholders they support. Students, parents, teachers, and school, district and state leaders may all be end users of the information provided by various assessments. For example, assessments can support the needs of:
Students and Parents:
- By informing students and parents about the student’s progress in learning content based on the state academic standards.
- By informing students and parents — as well as teachers and schools — about the student’s readiness: for grade advancement, graduation, college and careers.
Teachers and School Leaders:
- By allowing teachers to better plan and tailor instruction to student and classroom needs.
- By supporting teachers and school leaders in identifying where students need intervention, remediation or acceleration.
- By holding teachers and schools accountable, and identifying opportunities for their growth through teacher evaluations and school report cards.
Districts and States:
- By informing districts and the state about school performance, allowing them to determine the appropriate interventions for low-performing schools and to recognize high-performing schools.
- By allowing for comparisons of student subgroups, schools, districts and, when possible, states.
- By informing district leaders’ and state policymakers’ education policy decisions.
Understanding the different types of available assessments and how these can be connected to enable best assessment practice is a key step to assuring ft for purpose. Within K 12, there are three main assessment types: formative, interim and summative. Each has a critical role to play in delivering the right data to the right people to meet their particular needs, from student, parent, educator and principal to district- and state level stakeholders. Together, these assessments combine to create a balanced system that provides insights to accelerate educational progress.
The reason three different types of assessment are utilized in the K-12 arena is because each serves a different purpose. Understanding the goal of each assessment can help to ensure each is used to appropriately add value to improving overall learning outcomes. So, whether it’s formative, interim or summative, it is important to be familiar with the function, and the limitations, of each form of assessment.
Fundamentally, the purpose of formative assessment is to inform both students and teachers about learning in the classroom. Formative assessment occurs within the classroom, planned and orchestrated by the teacher and provides information that helps them to make decisions about what are appropriate next learning steps for students to move learning forward, and to support students as they gain insights into their own learning. Formative assessment can take many different forms, from purposeful listening to student discussions as they collaborate together and providing feedback to help them deepen their understanding, to bringing important ideas forward to the whole class, or to extending work on a project with rounds of feedback from peers. Any information gained from formative assessment activities should be useful in the moment.
A good analogy for thinking about the role of formative assessment is Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier. Finally, running a sub four-minute mile was a summative performance with a specific target reached. The times for all Bannister’s practice runs were not used to calculate his average for the year, but all the practices were essential in order for him to achieve his ‘summative’ performance. In the same way, formative assessment informs and guides ongoing learning during the year until a culminating summative assessment.
Interim assessment provides an opportunity to “check-in” on student learning at several points during the year and to get an estimate of likely performance on the summative assessment. It is intended to provide a shared point of reference across teachers and classes within a grade level on student learning during the year. Interim assessment data can be used to examine group performance to address questions such as, “how does the performance of English Learners in our school compare to other students?” Data could be disaggregated by gender, race/ethnicity, disability status, or socio-economic status if there are sufficient numbers of students in a subgroup. Data may be used to inform some adjustments in resources or curriculum strategies during the academic year, but may not necessarily influence classroom instruction in the way that a more targeted formative assessment would. Essentially, the information interim assessment delivers enables administrators and educators to understand where students are with respect to grade-level standards at given points in time during the year.
The goal of state-wide summative assessment is to evaluate student learning, usually near the end of the school year. It may also be referred to as the accountability assessment. State-wide summative assessment provides a broad view of student and school educational performance and allows districts and states to measure how well learning and teaching is meeting required state standards. As it measures specific outcomes at a single point in time, it is useful for examining individual students' overall mastery of state standards and also for comparing performances of groups of students across schools or districts. Given the survey nature of the assessment - covering a year’s worth of standards in a relatively short period of time - it produces aggregated data that is useful for state education agencies and districts for accountability and resourcing purposes. For teachers, it can identify student strengths and weaknesses broadly, but they will need additional, more targeted information during the academic year to inform ongoing instruction.
Jana Craig-Hare, Ph.D.
Director, Data & Assessment