Assessments In Class: Why Do We Use Them?

Author: Debra Kidder
Education Thought Leader


According to the U.S. Department of Education (, “Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners.”  

This is true in kindergarten, high school systems, and higher education.  We use test results to measure growth and mastery and improve student learning in school districts across the country.

Assessments and tests have been used in American classrooms since the one-room schoolhouse era. The kinds of tests, and how they are used, have changed dramatically over time. Tests were once simple question and answer recall events. Names, dates, and places; that’s all a group of students needed to remember.

Today there are many different assessments in schools.   Teachers can feel confused about what sets one apart from another, and what is the best use for each class. 

Let’s take a look at the most popular standardized tests schools use today, and why teachers find them useful.

How Many Types of Assessments Are There?

According to United States Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (who you can follow on Twitter @teachcardona),  there are six main types of assessments to support an academic program: Diagnostic, Formative, Summative, Ipsative, Criterion-Referenced, and Norm-Referenced.  

Each of these will work across any grade level or content area.

Each of these has a distinct purpose in the classroom.  Let’s take a look at how each assessment functions.


What does a student already know about a topic?  Teachers use a Diagnostic assessment in class to find out.  Students of all ages absorb information in formal and informal settings.  So, Diagnostic tests inform and drive planning.  

Diagnostic tests will tell you what students already know.  In turn, teachers know where to start with new information.  This will save time that may be wasted on re-teaching.


In-process evaluation of learning is called Formative assessment.  When teachers want to know if what they are doing is working, they need a formative activity.  

Formative tests answer questions like, do the students understand what I am teaching?  Are they grasping the main concepts *and* the finer points of the class lesson?  

Teachers use Formative assessments to ‘read the room.’  Using a Formative assessment can help a teacher know when to shift gears to maximize teaching impact.


Commonly contrasted with formative tests, summative assessments indicate what a student has learned at the end of a larger unit or long-term group of units. 

While Formative assessments are a check-in while students are ‘forming’ their understanding,  teachers give Summative tests to see a complete understanding.  Summative assessments ensure that students master the content.  In short, Summative assessments measure student performance.


Ipsative, or ‘Forced Choice’ assessments, ask the test taker to choose between answers that may all be correct, but have different qualities; for example, a personality test, or an integrity test.  If the question is “Which answer is the most accurate,” *all* of the answers may be accurate, but only one is the *most* accurate.  

“Which option best describes you?” 

a) I am honest 

b) I am friendly

c) I am popular

That would be a simple example of an Ipsative assessment question.

Ipsative assessments are great for first-day class activities or integrating a new student into class.  Teachers would not use an Ipsative assessment as a high-stakes test.


When learning about Criterion-Referenced assessments, the term ‘enough’ appears often.  For example, “Does the student know enough about the subject area to pass?”  Two excellent examples of Criterion-Referenced Assessments are driving tests and citizenship tests.  

For each, the student spends a considerable amount of time learning new information.  After passing a test, proving s/he has learned enough information to safely be admitted, the student is issued a driver’s license or citizenship in a new country.


These standardized tests are also known as ‘bell curve grading’ or ‘relative grading.’  When a teacher gives Norm Referenced assessments, the results are predetermined to meet a graphic that resembles a ‘bell,’ with a completely even distribution of high and low grades.

Some students refer to this kind of test as ‘curved.’ Years ago it was a standard policy to grade *all* tests in this way, making sure there was a set number of As, Bs, and Fs.  

Bell-curve grading was determined to be detrimental to a child’s education.  It did not clearly reflect mastery of a subject in class.  Yet, on certain standardized tests, this grading system is used to see where the class as a whole is excelling.


These six types of class-based assessments provide opportunities for teachers to learn if their planning and presentations are communicating their ideas.  They also inform students if what they thought they knew, they actually know.  

Standardized tests may identify signs of weakness in a curriculum or in an individual student’s learning.  These types of exams also maintain a much-needed level of consistency in education across the country.


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