Types of Assessment: Expand Your Repertoire

Types of Assessment

Teachers are often wondering what the different “types of assessment” are — but, the truth is, this is a complicated question.  Trying to categorize “types of assessment” is similar to trying to categorize “types of food.” How would you categorize eggs? Based on their nutritional value (are they “high protein” or “low carb”…?), based on when they’re eaten (are they breakfast foods… even in Cobb salads?), based on where they come from (organic, free-range, large, extra-large), or some other manner of categorization (vegetarian, non-vegan, healthy / not-healthy, dangerous, etc.)?

What we’re going to endeavor to do in this article is simply to categorize types of assessment in a number of ways that make sense, and that can be beneficial for the purposes of inspiring some top notch instruction.  But it’s important to keep in mind that almost all of these different types of assessment overlap, cross-pollinate, and/or complement each other in countless ways.

Types of Assessment that Enhance Teaching and Learning.

Types of assessment that serve the primary function of enhancing teaching and learning as typically considered formative assessments.  That said, just about any purposeful exchange between teacher and student that checks for understanding, and that is used to adjust and enhance learning, qualifies as an example of formative assessment.  You can check out these resources on formative assessment:

Types of Assessment to Expand Your Teaching RepertoireTypes of Assessment that Measure Learning Outcomes.

Types of assessment that serve the primary function of measuring student learning outcomes are considered summative assessments.  A clearcut example of this would be a final exam, or standardized tests such as the SAT.  These types of assessment are more “final” in nature in that they aren’t designed to enhance instruction or to generate data that can be used to immediately enhance student learning.  But, if you’re already considering some counterexamples, you’re spot on. (Do end-of-unit tests count as summative examples, even if students can retake them to demonstrate further learning, and even if the teacher uses students’ performances on those unit tests to inform the next day’s instruction?)  There’s certainly some gray area, as summative assessments can (and often do) borrow from the principles of formative assessment.

Two commonly used types of assessment that fall into this category are “benchmark assessments” and “common assessments.”  Benchmark assessments are essentially locally implemented standardized tests for the purpose of obtaining a summative snapshot of student learning.  (And yes, these can be used for formative purposes, too.) For example, the math department might develop an Algebra I test that is administered across all Algebra I students in September, regardless of course level, for the purposes measuring student understanding across the board.  

Benchmark assessments typically fall under the larger umbrella of common assessments — meaning, in the example described above, they are common across all teachers and sections of Algebra I.  But common assessments can be any shape and size. A group of 7th grade ELA teachers might decide to open class with the same ungraded assessment that measures students’ understanding of targeted grammar standards.  This three-minute task qualifies as a common assessment, and provides the same kinds of benefits and insights with regard to what it’s trying to measure (in this case, understanding of those targeted grammar standards) across students in different sections.  This can be great for trying to identify instructional practices, or even nuances in how certain kinds of content or skills might best be delivered, by trading notes with colleagues.

If you’re still feeling hazy on the differences between formative and summative assessment, or if you’d just like some inspiration, consider exploring our clarifying resources:

Types of Assessment that Engage Students

It’s important for us to preface this with the fact that, as mentioned earlier, these categories are not mutually exclusive.  Just as a summative assessment can borrow from the principles of formative assessment, assessments that are optimized to heighten student engagement can be formative and/or summative in nature.  Here are some examples of the types of assessment we’re talking about here:

  • Authentic assessments.  Types of assessment that reflect real world situations fall into this category.  Authentic types of assessment are heralded for optimizing student engagement, because kids (and anyone, really) is far more likely to invest maximum time and effort into a task that has real world applicability, as opposed to a task that doesn’t seem to offer any value beyond the task itself.  Generally speaking, considering a task’s audience is one of the best ways to check for, and enhance, authenticity. Is a student writing an essay for you, or for a specific audience outside of the classroom (the mayor, their parents, their friends, etc.)? Is a task a strictly academic exercise, or does it serve a real world purpose / address a relevant real world situation?  Often times, even reframing a task with an authentic context — even if its imaginary — can be a step in the right direction. The RAFT writing strategy, which prompts students to take on new Roles, to target a specific Audience, to write or create using a specific Format, and to address a specific Topic, helps to creak open the door to authentic assessment… but, the more “real” (i.e. not imaginary) the task, the better.
  • Performance based.  There is often a lot of overlap between performance based types of assessment and authentic assessments.  In short, performance based assessments ask students to demonstrate their understanding of a concept or mastery of a skill by “performing” a task that embodies those concepts, skills, or standards.  This prompts us to consider what does and doesn’t count as a “performance” (…most things count, don’t they?), and to consider opening doors beyond formal “testing” situations on a more regular basis.
  • Project based.  Types of assessment that are project based are, again, often complementary to, if not synonymous with, many of the other types of assessment already discussed.  The scope here is far greater than what this article is intended to achieve, but in short, project-based learning is designed to engage students in a problem solving process that spans weeks, throughout which student learning occurs as a byproduct of engaging with the development of their project.  Here, we see formative assessment, summative assessment, authentic assessment, AND performance based assessment all intertwined into one glorious project-based ball of learning. (Check out our PBL resources to learn more about project based learning!)


Other Types of Assessment.

Aside from the three major categories, we can certainly slice and dice types of assessment in countless other ways.  As with the other categories, there is plenty of overlap, and the optimal use of any particular strategy always boils down to its instructional purpose.

Types of Assessment That Are Graded vs. Ungraded

Note that whether or not an assessment is entered into a teacher’s gradebook ultimately has no bearing on whether or not it qualifies as formative, summative, or any of the other types of assessment previously discussed.  We can certainly make some generalizations. For instance, formative assessments occur continuously throughout every class period, and as such, it makes sense that they are more frequently ungraded, and that they generally have lower stakes — whereas summative assessments occur less often, and serve a weightier purpose, hence their association grades.  The interplay between graded and ungraded assessments ultimately because a question of district, school, and classroom culture — grades, after all, are just another tool that we wield to try to inspire motivation and learning.  (If you’re looking for an interesting read on this, consider checking out Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School…!)


Types of Assessment That Are Formal vs. Informal

A common misconception is that formative assessments are always “informal,” and that summative assessments are always “formal.”  This, too, is a generalization that we can make given the inherent nature of formative and summative assessment — but it isn’t always the case.  A summative assessment, such as a common benchmark given by all of the 7th grade teachers, can be ungraded, skills-based, and not-studied-for. Likewise, a pop quiz to assess students’ understanding of last night’s reading can be treated formally and entered into a gradebook with ease.

If you’re looking to take a much deeper dive, we’ve developed an AWESOME online course that promises to bring you to the “cutting edge” with regard to student engagement and pedagogy.  Our course, Modern Mastery PD, hones in on student centered learning, the neuroscience of student engagement and motivation, gamification and game-based learning, gold standard educational technology integration, and more.  You can learn more here, or enter your email address below for more information and special offers!