” You should look at this section if you have only a limited idea of the different kinds of assessment that are available and their various purposes.”

Assessment has long formed a key part of educational practice, alongside teaching and learning. Assessment is a way of evaluating or making a judgement about student progress. With assessment we want to identify what students know, what they understand and what they can do.

We use assessment to track student progress over time, to plan the next steps in student learning and to make sure that students, parents, teachers and educational administrators have a clear understanding of student progress.

One important thing to realise about assessment is that there are many ways of assessing student learning. Each of these have a different focus and different goals and can be used at different times.

​​​​​​​It is increasingly understood that assessment usually has many different purposes at the same time. Nevertheless, the distinction between summative and formative assessment can be helpful.

1) Formative – It is important that teachers are constantly monitoring learning of students in their classes so that they can adjust their approaches to teaching depending on how well students understand the content. This is formative assessment and can involve lots of activities such as teacher observations, students raising hands in class, students doing projects, student self-assessment and peer assessment.

2) Summative – At the end of a unit of study – this might be a chapter in a textbook, a week, a term or an academic year – it is important to use assessment to ensure that students have achieved the required learning outcomes. This is summative assessment and can be used for formal reporting but – importantly – it should also be used to adjust approaches to teaching in the next unit of study.

The biggest – and most common – assessment mistake is to assess students and then do nothing with the results! Assessment should always be used for a reason – most importantly to identify how students are progressing and to help them improve.

Another common mistake is to think that assessment is the same as examinations. This is not true. Examinations are just one type of assessment and they are only valuable in certain situations.

To find out more about different kinds of assessment, move to Intermediate.


” You should look at this section if you already know about some forms of assessment but are not sure of their different uses. “

For assessment professionals it is important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of different forms of assessment, and to know the purpose for using each one. In the past it was common to focus on the difference between formative and summative assessment, or assessment ‘for’, ‘as’ or ‘of’ learning. These days, however, ‘purpose pluralism’ is increasingly referred to, indicating that assessment has a number of simultaneous purposes.

An important consideration for assessment experts is to determine the main and subsidiary purpose of an assessment activity. A common mistake is to think that one form of assessment can achieve all objectives. Here are some general guidelines (although I am sure you can think of other types of assessment as well) :

1.     Is the objective to provide teachers with information about student learning so that they can better meet student needs? If so, classroom-based assessment activities that teachers can implement in their classrooms are likely to be the most relevant approach to assessment. Classroom-based assessment is often formative but can also be used to inform student and parents about student progress, so that they know what skills needs more practice.

2.     Is the objective to track student progress over time so that school leaders and teachers can ensure that students are on target to meet relevant leaning outcomes? If so, regular school-based assessment is likely to be the most relevant approach to assessment. School based assessment can also hold teachers accountable and can let parents know how students are progressing in comparison to their peers.

Importantly, both (1) and (2) require teachers to have a good understanding of how to create assessment materials. Most teachers find this really difficult and will certainly require lots of professional learning opportunities over an extended period of time to become proficient in developing assessment materials. An alternative is to use assessment products developed by organisations with expertise in assessment. This can help ensure that the assessment is of high quality and provides accurate information about student learning.

3.     Is the objective to decide which students should and should not enter higher education? If so, public examinations are likely to be relevant. Ideally, these should be designed to stimulate students to apply their knowledge to situations that call on them to solve problems or think creatively. If examinations require students to recall information, this has a negative impact on education and encourages rote-learning and cramming.

4.     Is the objective to hold education systems to account and to understand how effective education administrations at the district, state, provincial or regional level are at supporting student learning? If so, large scale, sample-based assessment is likely to be most relevant. Importantly, comparisons – such as between districts or states – should only be made taking contextual factors into account. In some countries, government led assessments are supplemented by citizen led assessment such as the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) or Multiple Indicator Cluster Surveys (MICS).

5.     Is the objective to hold national educational systems accountable for student learning? If so, international studies such as PISA, TIMSS or PIRLS are likely to be most relevant. International studies can also be used to identify factors that are statistically proven to improve student learning, such as the skills of teachers and the amount of homework. Again, any comparisons – such as between countries – should only be done by taking contextual factors into account.

To find out more about different kinds of assessment, move to Advanced


” You should look at this section if you are already familiar with a range of different forms of assessment and how they can be used​​​​​​​. “

As you know, there are lots of different kinds of assessments. They can be formative or summative, and assessments can be classroom based; school based; public examinations; large scale sample-based assessments or international studies (and I am sure that you can think of other categories as well). Moreover, types of assessment are increasingly understood to have ‘purpose pluralism’, meaning that they tend to have a number of simultaneous purposes.

Amidst all of this complexity, how do you choose between them? It is important to remember that all forms of assessment are more suitable for some purposes than for others. Here is a summary of some of the main ones, but you can probably add more.

Types of Assessment Best for Not good for
  • Adapting to students and topics
  • Giving immediate feedback to students
  • Informing teaching practices
  • Generating comparable data
  • Monitoring trends over time
  • Checking progress against learning outcomes
  • Providing feedback to students and parents
  • Informing teaching practices
  • Comparing school performance
  • Monitoring school performance over time
Public examinations
  • Ranking students
  • Selecting students
  • Setting cut-off points for higher education
  • Informing improvements in student learning or teaching
  • System accountability
  • National benchmarks for comparison
  • Monitoring trends over time
  • Informing improvements to education policies and structures
  • Monitoring progress of individual students
  • Helping teachers improve their approaches to teaching
  • National accountability
  • International benchmarks for comparison
  • Monitoring trends over time
  • Learning from international good practice
  • Building capacity of national experts
  • Providing feedback to students
  • Informing improvements to teaching and learning

Another important factor is cost. Classroom based assessments cost almost nothing to implement as they should be part of normal teaching practices. School based assessment are also relatively cheap to implement. Public examinations are expensive to develop but – other than printing – can be kept cheap through economies of scale. While large scale assessments and international studies are increasingly popular, it is important to remember that they are very expensive to implement properly. This means that an important part of assessment planning is identifying the cost-benefit ratio and setting priorities.​​​​​​​

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