Reconsidering K–12 Assessment Formats

assessments_120x105Assessment in Education #2 … an ongoing series on assessment

What do we mean when we talk about assessments in education? Testing can provoke a lot of anxiety for students, parents, and teachers alike, so a close consideration of the goals of assessment is essential.

As we discussed last week, the billion-dollar assessment market is in flux. While this situation creates uncertainty, it also affords test makers, school systems, and other stakeholders a valuable opportunity to rethink the goals and the design of assessments. As a result, in the future we may see more models for assessments rooted in new educational philosophies. Although no assessment format is perfect, a few key models seem to endure.

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments offer instant information about a student’s educational progress. The goal of a formative assessment isn’t usually to gauge the efficacy of a teacher or a school, but rather to shed light on where students stand within a particular lesson, unit, or course. Think of these as the “present tense” of assessment: a snapshot of a student’s learning.

Because formative assessments are given while teaching is still in progress, they can provide valuable information to be immediately implemented in instruction. Test results can tell teachers, for example, that a particular skill or concept is not being communicated effectively to students. Teachers can then see which remediations overcome particular student misunderstandings. When combined with thoughtful instructional design, formative assessments can create a useful feedback loop to help continually improve both curriculum and instruction.

Summative Assessments

If a formative assessment is like the “present tense,” then a summative assessment is like the “past tense.” That is, summative assessments are used to evaluate a student’s achievements after a particular unit, course, or school year. Paul Black puts it this way:

“When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.”


Although the term “high-stakes” is used to describe the function of an assessment rather than its format, high-stakes assessments are usually summative. That means there’s often a lot riding on summative assessments. A student’s performance is used to measure his or her progress against a particular set of benchmarks or standards, and that same information can hold schools and instructors accountable for their teaching. As a result, there is some controversy surrounding summative assessments:

  • What criteria should student performance be measured against?
  • Who should decide?
  • Should it vary across states?
  • Can it vary across school systems or educational models?

As charter schools rise in popularity, and more and more states move away from the Common Core, questions like these will continue to surround the implementation of summative assessments.

Competency-Based Assessments

Though the concept of competency-based education in college dates back to as early as the 1950s, this learning model is growing in popularity and seems poised to claim a larger section of the K–12 assessment industry in the coming years. As mentioned in our previous blog, New Hampshire is leading the way. [See “New Hampshire’s Journey Toward Competency-Based Education,” EducationNext, February 1, 2015.]

Competency-based assessments require students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills needed to perform a certain task. At the college level, this learning model appeals to many “nontraditional” students by giving them credit for experiences and skills gleaned outside the classroom, as well as by offering flexible schedules and the chance to progress further while paying lower tuition. [See “When Colleges Forget the Calendar and Focus on Mastery Instead,” The Atlantic, October 21, 2016.]

Since the competency-based programs are nontraditional, their assessments can be as well. Evidence-based items and performance tasks, for example, become much more important. The key to creating successful competency-based assessments is to set distinct thresholds to demonstrate “competency.” The goals must be clearly defined:

  • How will an assessment task distinguish a competent student from a not-yet-competent student?
  • How is a student’s competency scored, and does a higher score reliably demonstrate a higher level of competency?

These concerns represent ongoing challenges for creators of competency-based assessments. [See “Measuring Mastery,” Center for College & Career Success, Pearson, April 2015.]

In Summary

As the assessment market continues to evolve, so too will the styles and goals of assessment. Given the state of the current market, now is the perfect opportunity to pause and rethink what assessments should be and what they can accomplish. To that end, we have updated this table from our previous blog on assessment literacy to include competency-based assessment:

Type of Assessment When Used Purpose
End of year Check students’ knowledge and ability to apply standards; teacher accountability; helps teacher plan for standards-based lessons; data used at federal and state levels
Interim End of instructional period Check students’ content knowledge and critical thinking; data used for instruction planning; data used at district level
Formative Daily Check students’ learning and mastery of specific skills; data used at classroom level
Performance-Based Task During instruction of lesson or end of lesson Shows students’ mastery of task and critical thinking; data used at classroom level
Competency-Based Assessment Asynchronously at end of each instructional unit Focus on what students should be able to do; assess mastery of knowledge and skills needed to perform tasks; data used in online courses to monitor self-paced progress

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