A Guide to Assessment:
Overview and Strategies

When we think about assessment, standardized tests may come to mind with the purpose of measuring student achievement. The truth is that assessments are actually far more multi-faceted. Assessments can help to shape students’ learning journey at every point: from the beginning to better understand their baseline of knowledge, all the way to the end to measure their mastery of content. They can be used to measure teacher and school effectiveness, they can be formal or informal, and take many different forms including interviews, essays, presentations, and class discussions. This guide provides a clear definition of assessment for beginners as well as an overview of the different types of assessment and the individual purposes they serve.

What is Assessment and why is it important?

An assessment is the process of gathering information about students in order to make decisions about their learning, create plans that will help students reach their fullest potential, and measure how much they have learned over time. Assessments are a key part of instruction as they allow educators to diagnose what students know and don’t know, identify students who are struggling, determine which teaching methods work best for individual students, provide feedback to students and parents about student progress, and evaluate the effectiveness of instruction. 

What are examples of Assessment Strategies?

There are a variety of assessment strategies that can be helpful for different reasons. Some assessments can help identify a student's strengths and weaknesses, while others can help measure a student's progress over time. Understanding the wide variety of assessments is vital to help educators choose the right assessment strategy for their students’ learning journey. 

For example, if you are looking to assess your student’s understanding of a concept as they are learning in a low-stakes environment, a formative assessment in the form of a class discussion or a homework assignment would be a great option. On the other hand, if you are looking to assess students at the end of a unit or lesson, a summative assessment in the form of a final project, a standardized test, or a final presentation might work best to achieve this. Some types of assessments are best used before a course or unit even begins to understand a student’s baseline capabilities, like diagnostic or baseline assessments. 

To choose an assessment strategy that is best for a group of students, consider the following: 

  1. What is the purpose of the student assessment? Is it to measure a student’s current level of knowledge and understanding? Or is it to identify gaps in their understanding so that instruction can be tailored to meet their needs? 
  2. What is the ability level of the group of students you will assess? 
  3. What type of information are you looking to gather? What did you intend for students to take away from your lesson?
  4. Would you like to assess your students through a project, survey, or traditional assessment? 

Once you have a better understanding of the purpose of your assessment, the type of information you are looking to gather, and the group of students you are assessing, it is time to explore your assessment options. Below you will find an overview of some different assessment types to use from the beginning to the end of your student’s learning journey:

Assessment Strategies

At the beginning of the year or semester, you might find yourself with a class that has a wide range of capabilities. In this case, a baseline assessment may be administered to get a snapshot of each student’s starting point of knowledge. This will be beneficial in understanding which students are performing above or below average and help you to tailor your curriculum for the school year accordingly. 

Baseline Assessment 

Definition: Baseline assessment is a process of measuring a student's current skills and knowledge in order to track their progress over time. 

Purpose: This information can be used to identify areas in which a student needs additional support and to measure the effectiveness of interventions.

Example: When a group of students has a wide range of backgrounds, an educator might administer a baseline assessment at the beginning of the semester. A baseline assessment can be carried out in a variety of ways including a standardized test or an informal homework assignment. 

Research says: Kate Bailey, author of Baseline Assessment: Make It Work For You, makes the following point about baseline assessments: “Good quality baseline assessments provide a trusted external reference of a pupil’s starting-point performance, indicating what students already know and what they can do, and whether it is below, above or broadly in line with the national average.”

Your baseline assessment might give you some insight into which students are performing well below or above average. For this specific set of students, a diagnostic assessment is useful to identify the extent of a student’s gift or learning disability. 

Diagnostic Assessment 

Definition: Diagnostic assessment is the process of determining the nature and extent of a student’s learning disability, the most appropriate accommodations, and if a student is on track to meet grade-level expectations. 

Purpose: This assessment can be used to identify students who have disabilities and also students who are gifted and talented. This information can then be used to create a personalized learning plan to help the student improve their academic performance. 

Example: One example of a diagnostic assessment is an IQ test, like the Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement. This kind of type can be used to identify specific areas of difficulty and to help determine an appropriate intervention.

Research says: According to the California Department of Education, these kinds of assessments may help teachers determine what students understand in order to build on the student’s strengths and address their specific needs. Diagnostic tools can guide curriculum planning and teaching in more specific ways than most summative assessments.”

‍Once you’ve reviewed the starting point of all of your students and identified those who are gifted and those with learning disabilities, it is time to begin teaching your material. The trick here is to not wait until midterms or final exams to check your student's understanding but to assess informally very frequently to course correct along the way. This is where formative assessments are extremely beneficial on a weekly or monthly basis to help you to adjust your teaching strategies according to your student's learning process. Formative assessments help to guide instruction as they often provide immediate feedback on what concepts students have absorbed and which they still need to practice.

Formative Assessment

Definition: Formative assessment is a way of monitoring student learning and understanding throughout a lesson or unit. 

Purpose: Formative assessments allow teachers to give students feedback on their learning and help them to adjust teaching strategies accordingly. This type of assessment is helpful in identifying students’ strengths and weaknesses so that teachers can provide targeted instruction.

Examples: Some common examples of formative assessments include homework assignments, in-class discussions, surveys, low-stakes group work, gamified tests, or reflection writing assignments. Often the feedback from formative assessments will be immediate. 

Research says: John Hattie, author of the article Visible Learning, says Formative assessment can greatly help students develop the skills they need to be successful learners, such as the ability to monitor their own learning, set goals, and take corrective action.”

Next up are benchmark assessments, otherwise known as interim assessments, which are intended to fall somewhere between formative and summative assessments. These are meant to check students’ understanding of content according to a set of standards within the same school year and can help to forecast a student’s performance on bigger summative state tests. The main difference between a formative and benchmark or interim assessment is that in addition to providing information on student achievement, schools and districts can use the data from a benchmark assessment to measure the effectiveness of teaching. 

Benchmark Assessment 

Definition: A benchmark assessment is a test or set of tests used to measure the progress of students or to compare the performance of schools, school districts, or other educational institutions.

Purpose: Benchmark exams measure how well students are performing in relation to other students in the state or district. Benchmark assessments are often used to measure the effectiveness of a school or district's curriculum.

Example: Some examples of benchmark assessments are the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, the Stanford Achievement Test, and the California Achievement Test.

Research says: The article, Benchmark Assessment for Improved Learning states “Benchmark assessments can serve curriculum and instructional planning purposes by providing educators information needed to adjust curriculum and instruction to meet student learning needs. To do so, benchmark assessments must be aligned with content standards and major learning goals and provide reliable information on students’ strengths and weaknesses relative those goals.” 

After benchmark or interim assessments which can guide instruction and track student progress, comes summative assessments. These are strictly used at the end of a unit or lesson to track student achievement against standards. The ultimate goal of a summative assessment is to evaluate the learning environment and check the effectiveness of teaching and curriculum at a school or district. 

Summative Assessment 

Definition: While formative assessment helps to gauge students’ knowledge throughout a lesson, summative assessment occurs at the end of a unit or learning activity to determine what students have mastered the material and the effectiveness of instruction. 

Purpose: Summative assessment is used to measure a student's understanding of a subject, the ability to identify areas in which a student needs additional help, and provide feedback to students that can help them improve their understanding of a subject.

Example: These are often given in the form of final projects, standardized tests including the SAT, midterm exams, chapter tests, essays, or oral presentations. 

Research says: In the article, Best Practices in Summative Assessment, Jonathan Kibble mentions that summative assessments are “high stakes for all concerned, most obviously for the learners who are being judged but also in the sense that the data may be used to drive course improvement, to assess teaching effectiveness, and for program-level assessments such as accreditation.”

Two branches of summative assessment are norm-referenced assessment and criterion-referenced assessment. Norm-referenced assessments compare individual student performance to a group average, while criterion-referenced assessments compare student progress to predetermine standards. 

Norm-Referenced Assessment 

Definition: A norm-referenced assessment is a process of assessing the current level of performance of a student or groups of students against a pre-determined standard. The performance of students on a norm-referenced assessment is compared to others who took the test or another group of students. 

Purpose: Norm-referenced assessments compare a student's performance to the performance of other students. This type of assessment is used to measure a student's progress and to identify areas in which the student needs improvement.

Example: Some examples of benchmark exams are the SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT. 

Research says: In the article Practical Assessment, Research, and Evaluation by Linda A. Bond mentions, “NRTs are designed to highlight achievement differences between and among students to produce a dependable rank order of students across a continuum of achievement from high achievers to low achievers. School systems might want to classify students in this way so they can be properly placed in remedial or gifted programs. These types of tests are also used to help teachers select students for different ability level reading or mathematics instructional groups.”

Criterion-Referenced Assessment 

Definition: Criterion-referenced assessment measures the extent to which students have met a specific set of predetermined criteria or standards. In this type of assessment, a student’s performance is not compared to other students’ performance on the same assessment.

Purpose: This type of assessment is often used to measure students' progress in specific subject areas or to assess the effectiveness of teaching throughout a unit or course. 

Example: One example of a criterion-referenced assessment would be the state-wide high-stakes exam. This is a standardized assessment that compares students’ performance with predefined performance standards. 

Research says: The article Criterion-Referenced Assessment of Intelligence as Adaptation to the Environment says, “Criterion-referenced interpretations offer multiple uses for educational and other purposes. They allow educators to know what a test-taker can do in terms of achieved levels of mastery, rather than merely in relative terms to what other individuals can do.” 

Confirmative Assessment 

Definition: Confirmative assessment occurs sometime after a unit has already ended to confirm that knowledge from that lesson still exists. 

Purpose: The purpose of this assessment is to confirm that instruction was successful after a year. 

Example: One example of this would be a final exam, which includes material that has already been assessed earlier. 

Research says: In the article, Confirmative Evaluation: Meaning, Scope, Purpose and Model, Anuvrat Dutta mentions, “Confirmative evaluation builds on the results and suggestions made during formative and summative evaluations. It allows evaluators to confirm the value of performance improvement and performers over time. Moreover, it aids organizations in deciding how to manage ongoing performance improvement activities.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum of summative assessments, ipsative assessments do not have a focus on learning goals or standards. Ipsative assessments are all about personal student progress. The idea behind the ipsative assessment is to see personal growth over time throughout a student’s learning journey. 

Ipsative Assessment 

Definition: Ipsative assessment is a type of assessment that measures a person's abilities or skills in relation to their own progress. 

Purpose: Ipsative assessment is often used to measure a person's progress over time, as opposed to a student’s overall knowledge at a given point in time. It is different from other types of assessment in that it does not provide information about the absolute level of ability or attribute of individuals. 

Example: An example of ipsative assessment would be a student taking the same test three times in a row and the results would be compared to see if the student has improved over time.

Research says: In Significance and Challenges of Formative Ipsative Assessment in Inquiry Learning, Kohei Nishizuka says that, “Unlike criterion-referenced assessments, which involve authoritative control, ipsative assessments are less reliant on teacher-imposed task performances and promote rounded learning, rather than focusing on learning targets only legitimated by summative tests, which allows students to be more certain about their futures and to better understand the value of their learning.”

More types of Assessment Strategies

A few variations of the assessments mentioned above include traditional assessments and authentic or performance-based assessments. Traditional assessments are often given as tests or quizzes using pen and paper, while performance-based assessments give students more freedom to choose and prove they can apply their newly acquired knowledge to real-world situations. These can both be used to keep the assessment experience exciting throughout the school year. 

Performance-Based or Authentic Assessment

Definition: Performance-based assessments, otherwise known as authentic assessments, allow teachers to address deeper areas of learning that traditional assessments might not cover. 

Purpose:  This type of assessment was designed to challenge students to apply what they have learned to real-world situations. 

Example: While traditional assessment measures students' skills and depth of knowledge through a quiz or test, an authentic assessment is often given in the form of a hands-on creative task. An example of an authentic assessment is a student creating a project about a topic of their choice.

Research says: A Case Report on the Benefits of Authentic Assessment states, “Authentic forms of assessment facilitate students’ ownership of knowledge, encourage them to take responsibility for their own learning, and are consistently rated as enjoyable and fulfilling.”

Traditional Assessment

Definition: Traditional assessment refers to the more conventional methods of testing, such a quizzes or exams. 

Purpose: Traditional assessment can help to measure students' understanding of a topic and their ability to apply what they have learned.

Example: This kind of assessment usually utilizes pen and paper and consists of multiple-choice and true or false test items. Standardized tests and most state achievement tests would be considered traditional assessments. 

Research says: Beth Lustgarten, author of Traditional Versus Alternative Assessment, says, “Some favor traditional testing because they view it as more straightforward, better organized, and more detailed. These students also maintained the belief that studying prior to the test promotes learning and then, application of knowledge to think through a multiple choice test.”

People also ask about assessments:

How can online assessments be helpful for students? 

Online assessments can be helpful for students because they can provide immediate feedback and help students identify their strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, online assessments can help students track their progress over time. Learn more about how to assess student learning online

What is an assessment capable learner? 

An assessment-capable learner can take ownership of their own learning and be proactive in their own education. They are able to identify their own strengths and weaknesses and use this information to set goals and plan their learning path. This type of learner can also assess their own progress and make changes to their learning as they progress.

What is the impact of online assessment for students with special needs?

Online assessment can be a valuable tool for students with special needs as it can allow them to take assessments in a format that is more accessible. They can be administered and taken at any time and from any location. They also allow for more flexibility in terms of accommodations that can be made for students with special needs.

What are some basic tricks to create an open-ended assessment?

Some basic tricks to create an open-ended assessment are to ask open-ended questions, provide a variety of response options, and allow students to share their responses in their own words.

What is an online assessment in education?

An online assessment in education is a test or quiz that students take online. These assessments can be used to measure student learning, diagnose areas of weakness, and track student progress over time. Many online assessments are delivered through learning management systems (LMS) or other online platforms.

What are some key objectives of online assessments?

Some key objectives of online assessments are to provide a more efficient and accurate way to measure student learning, to provide feedback to students and teachers that can help improve student learning, and to provide a way to measure the effectiveness of instruction.

What are some benefits of online assessments?

One of the benefits is that it is convenient for students as they can take the assessments at any time and from any location. Additionally, online assessments can be tailored to meet the needs of students. They can be adapted to different levels of students and different types of learners.

What are the challenges of digital assessments and how to overcome them?

Challenges of digital assessments include the need for reliable broadband internet access, the need for devices that can access the internet, the need for software that can be used to administer the assessments, and the need for students to be familiar with using technology. 

One way to overcome these challenges is to provide students with devices that can access the internet. This can be done through a 1:1 device program or through providing students with access to devices in the classroom. Additionally, teachers can help students become familiar with using technology by providing instruction on how to use technology tools for assessments. 

How do I choose an assessment tool?

It is important to consider what you hope to learn from the assessment and what type of assessment would be best suited to your needs. Some factors to consider include the purpose of the assessment, the target audience, and the time frame.