Assessments are valuable if they guide, incite, accelerate, or reward learning. For many students, assessments do not deliver any of those positive benefits. In fact, for many, tests bring anxiety, derail creative teacher instructional plans to bring student performance up through test prep, and cause them to feel discouraged or even ashamed.

As standardized tests have proliferated in amount and gained in importance, many teachers have been threatened with job loss if students do not score well on test. This in spite of the fact that the assessments are developed to gauge student learning, not teacher effectiveness which has many other causal factors. Additionally, assessments by external research or commercial entities given higher regard over teacher grades or evaluations of students further erodes the respect that our teachers deserve.

While tests have moved to computer-based and sometimes computer-adaptive formats, the basic goals of these tests have not been examined with fresh eyes. Now that students can do work on computers, their performance could be deduced instead of interrupting learning for testing. Students could do real work and have their work evaluated by teachers using rubrics – authentic or portfolio assessment. With the growth of project-based learning, projects could be evaluated– instead of pausing to take tests.

But of course some tests may still be of value. Here is a short description of the types of tests now used in our schools:

Formative assessments inform learning. Discovering what learners know helps to tune the learning to what they are ready to receive and what they need to learn to advance to the next concepts, information, and skills.

Interim assessments, or additional progress formative assessments can further individualize learning, and help teachers and parents to guide students.

Summative assessments are thought of as “final” and whether they are multiple choice tests at the conclusion of a course, completed projects or lab work, or final papers or theses at the conclusion of a course or course of study; these tests do not guide learning, but rather certify what the learner has learned, what the teacher or program has effectively taught.

Often, summative assessments, given at the end of the year serve administrators in determining where to place students, whether to graduate them, and how to compare one class of students with another at their school or to compare their school to others. Often these summative tests are not fully shared with or understood by students themselves or by their parents. Subsequent teachers may not have access or may not have time to analyze past summative tests of their current students. So summative assessments largely serve administrative needs but do not incite, support, or guide effective learning.

Summative tests are often thought to be the only way to get “reliable” and “valid” information on student performance. Validity refers to how well a test measures what it is purported to measure. 

Yale’s Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning offers an excellent summary of types of assessments here.