Assessment Opinion

Assessment’s ‘Fab Four’

By Stephanie L. Bravmann — March 17, 2004 6 min read
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Assessment is not a monolithic concept.

This is not an article about the Beatles, but it is about something that for 40 years has had educators swooning and screaming, and school critics dancing in the aisles. It’s assessment. All the excitement about it drowns out the real lyrics—about how it can and must be used. We can’t hear one another well enough to have a serious discussion about the types of assessment that are essential if we are to provide appropriate education for our children.

Few, including myself, would suggest that accountability is either undesirable or unimportant. What remains arguable is how best to attain it in ways that actually advance our educational goals. The No Child Left Behind Act, now the law of the land in education, is putting real stresses on state standards, testing in general, and, most of all, on our children. Its criteria for “adequate yearly progress” all but assure that most schools—the “bad” and also the good—will fall short. Its focus on end-point measurement only, known in the vocabulary of educators as summative evaluation, omits the very aspects of assessment that enable us to attain positive outcomes for as many learners as possible.

Our compulsion to establish accountability—which seems more each day to resemble the need to assign culpability—has obscured the fact that there are four distinct kinds of assessment that need to occur in schools, none of which can or should stand alone and each of which is integral to the process of education. These elements, when used together to inform and advance the acts of teaching and learning, are what help ensure growth for students. They are not esoteric concepts—I don’t know of a single teacher (and after all these years, I am acquainted with many, many teachers), who is not aware of them.

The four kinds of assessment referred to here are placement, formative, diagnostic, and summative. Educationese, perhaps, but so easily explained.

Placement assessment should occur before instruction begins. Its purpose is to gather information on where to start and how best to teach students. Assessment for placement gives the teacher(s) the particulars about what each child knows before trying to teach him or her something new, and thus increases the probability that instruction will be suitable for every child. Data for placement assessment come from past records, observations, pretests based on observations of strengths and weaknesses, student self- reports, and other similar sources.

Formative assessment monitors student progress during instruction. It is ongoing, and its purpose is to provide continuous feedback to teachers and to students: It enables everyone involved to know where they stand in the process of learning. This type of assessment provides teachers with information they need to modify instruction and to create appropriate work for groups of learners or for individual students. In addition, formative assessment gives students positive reinforcement for successful learning, as well as indicating areas where growth and improvement are needed. Almost all of those things that teachers do to determine “what is going on” in their classes, formal and informal, create the database for this kind of assessment: observations, quizzes, homework assignments, monitoring and responding to student questions, and so on. Formative assessment is not typically used to assign grades; it is intended to be a guide to teaching and learning.

Diagnostic assessment represents a much more serious intervention into student learning. It becomes necessary when a student experiences persistent difficulties in spite of the alternative methods of instruction employed by teachers based on information from placement- and formative-assessment techniques. Diagnostic assessment is designed to determine the cause or causes of consistent learning problems and, based on its results, to enable educators to formulate plans for appropriate remedial attention to individual students. This type of assessment is highly specialized. Unlike formative assessment, which is intended to deal with the kinds of learning issues that respond to the classroom equivalent of bandages, hot-water soaks, or massage, diagnostic assessment helps find the underlying causes for learning problems that don’t respond to purely palliative measures.

Assessment that is meant to diagnose the reasons for ongoing problems entails specialized, comprehensive, detailed, and professionally prepared tests that need to be administered by personnel with specific training. These instruments need to be supplemented (and are usually indicated) by ongoing observation, anecdotal assessments, and placement, formative, and summative data. The results of diagnostic assessment provide the basis for specific continuing remedial interventions that can help teachers and specialists deal with issues that interfere with a student’s ability to learn effectively.

Without genuine attention to all four types of assessment, we will never be able to provide fully and meaningful education for children.

Summative assessment is the kind that everyone knows about, even if they don’t know it by that name. It is “the test"—the final task at the end of a unit, a course, or a semester. In addition to traditional examinations, summative data can be amassed through student demonstrations or performance, the evaluation of assigned projects and their products, systematically collected portfolios that summarize students’ achievements (or progress), and so forth. Educationally, the purpose of summative assessment is to determine the extent to which instructional goals have been achieved; it is intended to support the assignment of grades or to confer certification of mastery. For teachers, the information yielded by this kind of assessment can help them judge the appropriateness of their instructional goals and objectives and the effectiveness of their teaching practices.

Currently, state and federally mandated examinations are being used to determine whether or not a student can proceed to the next grade or graduate from high school, as well as if a school is doing “well enough” to receive state and/or federal funds. This too is summative assessment, but it is serving more as a “gotcha” examination than as a guide to teaching and learning. People outside of school settings, and often very far away from the realities of today’s classrooms, are deciding what should be learned, how it should be assessed, and what constitutes an acceptable level of attainment.

So here’s the catch. If we persist in focusing on only one aspect of assessment—the summative—without genuine attention to its placement, formative, and diagnostic components, we will never be able to provide full and meaningful education for children. Each kind of assessment generates specific and unique information that can guide us in our attempts to teach as well as we can; each yields results that suggest specific consequent actions by teachers and students to improve the possibilities of learning. By focusing only on the end goal, we undermine our ability to reach it.

Assessing learning comprises a continuum of activities, each with an identifiable purpose and clear implications. If we really are committed to educating each child (as opposed to the nameless “all children”), we must make use of the full array of assessment activities available. If we really do want to improve education, we must collect and use all the data we can gather. True accountability cannot be attained by mandate or command. Summative assessment alone will not even begin to accomplish what we say we want. It must be partnered with placement, formative, and diagnostic assessment if we are to fairly and equitably optimize, and then evaluate, learning.

I really wish I’d been able to write about the Fab Four that everyone knows. People always remember what’s said about the Beatles.

Stephanie L. Bravmann is a senior research consultant at the Center on Reinventing Education at the University of Washington, in Seattle.

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