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Assessment Explainer

Types of Assessments: A Head-to-Head Comparison

By Sarah D. Sparks — November 09, 2015 3 min read
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What is the difference between formative and interim assessments? Here’s a guide for distinguishing different kinds of student assessments.

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What is the test?

Formative Learning Assessment: Formative learning is the process of teaching students how to set goals for their learning, to identify their growth towards those goals, to evaluate the quality of their work, and to identify strategies to improve.

Formative Diagnostic Assessment: Formative diagnostic assessment is a process of questioning, testing, or demonstration used to identify how a student is learning, where his strengths and weaknesses lie, and potential strategies to improve that learning. It focuses on individual growth.

Benchmark/Interim Assessment: Benchmark or interim assessment is a comparison of student understanding or performance against a set of uniform standards within the same school year. It may contain hybrid elements of formative and summative assessments, or a summative test of a smaller section of content, like a unit or semester.

Summative Assessment: Summative assessment is a comparison of the performance of a student or group of students against a set of uniform standards.

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Who is measured by the test?

Formative Learning Assessment: Individual students are measuring themselves against their learning goals, prior work, other students’ work, and/or an objective standard or rubric.

Formative Diagnostic Assessment: Individual students. The way they answer gives insight into their learning process and how to support it.

Benchmark/Interim Assessment: Individual students or classes.

Summative Assessment: The educational environment: Teachers, curricula, education systems, programs, etc.


How often are students tested?

Formative Learning Assessment: Ongoing: It may be used to manage a particular long-term project, or be included in everyday lessons. Feedback is immediate or very rapid.

Formative Diagnostic Assessment: Ongoing: Often as part of a cycle of instruction and feedback over time. Results are immediate or very rapid.

Benchmark/Interim Assessment: Intermittent: Often at the end of a quarter or semester, or a midpoint of a curricular unit. Results are generally received in enough time to affect instruction in the same school year.

Summative Assessment: Point in time: Often at the end of a curricular unit or course, or annually at the same time each school year.


Why are students tested?

Formative Learning Assessment: To help students identify and internalize their learning goals, reflect on their own understanding and evaluate the quality of their work in relation to their own or objective goals, and identify strategies to improve their work and understanding.

Formative Diagnostic Assessment: To diagnose problems in students’ understanding or gaps in skills, and to help teachers decide next steps in instruction.

Benchmark/Interim Assessment: To help educators or administrators track students’ academic trajectory toward long-term goals. Depending on the timing of assessment feedback, this may be used more to inform instruction or to evaluate the quality of the learning environment.

Summative Assessment: To give an overall description of students’ status and evaluate the effectiveness of the educational environment. Large-scale summative assessment is designed to be brief and uniform, so there is often limited information to diagnose specific problems for students.


What strategies are used?

Formative Learning Assessment: Self-evaluation and metacognition, analyzing work of varying qualities, developing one’s own rubric or learning progressions, writing laboratory or other reflective journals, peer review, etc.

Formative Diagnostic Assessment: Rubrics and written or oral test questions, and observation protocols designed to identify specific problem areas or misconceptions in learning the concept or performing the skill.

Benchmark/Interim Assessment: Often a condensed form of an annual summative assessment, e.g. a shorter term paper or test. It may be developed by the teacher or school, bought commercially, or be part of a larger state assessment system.

Summative Assessment: Summative assessments are standardized to make comparisons among students, classes, or schools. This could a single pool of test questions or a common rubric for judging a project.

A previous version of this page was designed by Lovey Cooper.
A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as Comparing Assessments

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