Primary Assessment Types & Purposes

Assessment is used in educational settings for a variety of reasons. The type of assessment used is often linked to the purpose associated with the data collected from the results. How the data is used influences the design of the assessment. Educators use assessments in ways such as keeping track of learning, identifying strengths, diagnosing difficulties, determining eligibility for programs, evaluating programs, evaluating teaching, and reporting to others for accountability. No matter what form of assessment you use, the purpose of assessments is to provide information, data, and feedback for planning and improvement of teaching and learning.

The purpose of this chapter is to provide practitioners with some of the most salient points of academic assessments that should be considered when measuring the content knowledge and skill levels of all students. As you explore six types of assessments, we provide examples of classroom applications along with information to help educators maximize the effectiveness of assessments in the learning environment.

According to the National Council for Teachers of English, the teacher is the most important agent of assessment, because most educational assessment takes place in the classroom, as teachers and students interact with one another (n.d.). 

In education, assessment is the center of many debates among all stakeholders. Complex, wide-ranging, and often contentious, the debates usually center on how assessments are used, how often they are being administered, and whether assessments are beneficial or harmful to learners and the teaching process (Lynch, 2022).

Diagnostic Assessments

Diagnostic assessments are given at the beginning of a course or unit to assess current knowledge. This type of assessment is used to help teachers identify what students already know and can do in relation to the content to be studied in the course.  Therefore, diagnostic data is used for instructional planning and pacing, helping teachers to find out where students are concerning grade level or content standards.

Examples of diagnostic assessments include screeners, pre-test, and observations. The frequency of these assessments depends on the specific type of assessment and assessment structures. 

Formative Assessments

Formative assessments could be thought of as assessments for learning. Taking this approach helps to keep the purpose of these types of assessments in focus. When using formative assessments, the data should be used to inform instructional decisions in real time. Formative assessments serve as pulse checks for measuring student learning and ultimately, the effectiveness of your instruction. If students are struggling, you probably need to reteach. If students are doing well, you can move on and provide continued practice. One critical aspect of formative assessments is allowing students to interact with the content and develop meaning and connections. Occurring during the learning, formative assessments can be used by both teachers and students to help identify gaps in learning, clarify misconceptions or understandings about the content, or determine if students are ready to move on to the next concept. Formative assessments are a high-leverage strategy for improving student learning outcomes and should occur frequently throughout each lesson. This helps teachers to keep track of learners' progress toward learning objectives and standards.  

Some examples of formative assessments include observations, quizzes, classwork, and homework. You can check out this resource for a list of 27 formative assessment strategies that can be used to gather evidence of student learning.  

There is much debate among educators on whether or not formative assessments should be graded. However, it is more important to understand the purpose of formative assessments and how important they are to the teaching and learning process. 

Summative Assessments

Assessments that take place after the teaching is completed are called summative assessments. This form of assessment is used to measure how much learning has taken place at the end of a learning unit and measure student proficiency on that content or skill. The data from this type of assessment provides a summary, with limited impact on student learning. Instead, this data serves as evaluative feedback used for future planning regarding curriculum, instruction, and the implementation of learning strategies. 

Summative assessments include unit or term assessments, performance assessments, and standards-based assessments, as well as benchmarks and state assessments. 

Summative assessments are always graded or used as a component of accountability measures. This is how teachers can ensure that students have met learning targets and standards. 


Are “standardized tests” a fair way to assess the learning achievement of all learners, given that some learners may be better test-takers than others? Or should learners be given various assessment options and several opportunities to show what they have learned? 

High-Stakes Assessments

Assessments that are usually associated with requirements that present some form of benefit or consequence based on the result are called high-stakes assessments. The “stakes” are the potential benefit that would be gained from successfully meeting the required score on the assessment. There is a specific assessment with clearly defined standards that measure performance levels specific to the knowledge and skills needed to be successful. For example, to qualify for a Kansas initial teaching license, you must complete a content knowledge assessment in each of the endorsement or teaching subject areas for which you completed a teacher preparation program (Kansas Department of Education, 2023). You must also complete a pedagogy or teaching skills test--the Principles of Learning and Teaching, or PLT, exam. These are considered “high-stakes” assessments because they are financially costly to candidates and have high passing cut-scores, and candidates will not become licensed to teach until they have achieved passing scores. In addition to board certification exams, other examples of high-stakes assessments include licensing assessments for getting a driver's license or CDL and achievement assessments like the SAT, ACT, or GRE. High-stakes testing has also been used in education as measures for grade advancement and graduation. However, there is much debate around the value and impact of high-stakes testing, particularly in education, as the results of these assessments create and exacerbate barriers for many students. Additionally, there is evidence of the psychological impact on students.


Is high-stakes testing the right way to improve schools, teaching quality, and learner achievement?

For a quick summary on the differences between the types of assessments discussed above, check out this video resource: Diagnostic vs. Formative vs. Summative Assessment.

Norm-Referenced vs. Criterion-Referenced

When comparing norm vs. criterion-referenced assessments, it is important to note the difference in how scores are interpreted and the purpose for which the data is being collected. 

norm-referenced assessment measures and compares student performance to other students. Students with the best performance receive the highest grade. The data from norm-referenced assessment serves two major purposes: 1) See where students rank nationally and, 2) Track students over time. For example, The National Merit Scholarship uses Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test (PSAT/NMSQT®)  results to identify top scorers and to track student progress throughout high school (National Merit Corporation, 2023).

Criterion-reference assessments measure and compare student performance in relation to pre-established standards or learning objectives. All students may receive the highest grade if they meet the established criteria. The traditional assessment where the highest grade possible is 100% is an example of a criterion-referenced assessment. Essentially, the score represents the learner's mastery level towards the standards or content. 

While both assessment types can be interpreted in similar ways, they are usually intended to be one or the other.

This video may serve as a good resource of examples regarding these two forms of assessment. 


Do standardized assessments reflect intrinsic biases that favor some learners over others, such as wealthier white learners from more-educated households over minority and low-income learners from less-educated households? 

Figure 1

Content-Specific Assessment Examples

Reliability vs. Validity

In the realm of assessment development, both reliability and validity are important. Reliability refers to the consistency of the measure--can the results be reproduced? However, reliability is only important within the context of validity. Validity is the accuracy of the measure--does the assessment measure what it was intended to measure? 

As educators, we are responsible for accurately assessing and documenting student growth and achievement as a measure of effectiveness. As accountability measures change and shift to include various metrics, one criterion remains steadfast in teacher evaluations and accountability measures, student achievement. 

 With classroom assessments and activities at the foundation of learning, all assessments must be both reliable and valid in alignment with state and national academic standards.  

Assessment Item Construction

When developing assessments, there are three keys to developing high-quality assessment items: alignment, depth of knowledge, and vocabulary. However, additional assistance in writing effective test questions can be found by visiting this online resource on assessment development and item construction


Alignment with the standards and learning expectations is an essential aspect of assessments. Standards, provided by state or national organizations, establish expectations for learning. To measure outcomes accurately, assessments are used, making alignment the most important aspect of assessment development. One framework by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe offers a planning process and structure to guide curriculum, assessment, and instruction. Its two key ideas are contained in the title: 1) focus on teaching and assessing for understanding and learning transfer, and 2) design curriculum “backward” from those ends (ACSD, 2012). Educators can achieve the concept of backward design by engaging in a three-step process when planning and implementing the curriculum.

"…backward design is beneficial to instructors because it innately encourages intentionality during the design process. It continually encourages the instructor to establish the purpose of doing something before implementing it into the curriculum. Therefore, backward design is an effective way of providing guidance for instruction and designing lessons, units, and courses." (Bowen, 2017)


Have you seen evidence of backward design at any level (PreK-16) and from any perspective (whether you were a student, observer/intern, para, substitute, or instructor the class). If so, what did that look like? If not, what do you think implementing backward design would have changed? Do you think backward design would be evident to all parties, or only to those in an instructional role?

Although covered previously in this text, even more information about Backward Design/Understanding by Design can be found here on Vanerbuilt's Center for Teaching webpage.

Educators who share an inclusive vision of student learning understand that the purpose of assessment, at all levels, is to inform and guide the instruction of students. This can occur only when the content of student instruction and assessment are aligned. 

Depth of Knowledge

Depth of Knowledge (DOK) refers to the language used to establish the level of rigor as it aligns with the complexity of the cognitive demand of an assessment. Often, parallel with Bloom's Taxonomy, Wedd created this framework to provide vocabulary that provides a common language for how learners engage with the content.

Figure 2

Bloom's Taxonomy & Webb's Depth of Knowledge




When considering how to assess student learning in a course, the ideal assessment would be one that not only assesses students’ learning, but also teaches students and improves their skills and understanding of course content. Vocabulary lies at the heart of content learning, as it serves as a proxy for students’ understanding of concepts (Fisher & Frey, 2014). When developing instructional plans, learning activities, and assessments, teachers must explicitly teach both general academic vocabulary as well as domain/content-specific vocabulary. Simply put, academic vocabulary are words and phrases that are commonly found in academic texts and discourse across all discipliens. Domain or content-specific vocabulary, on the other hand, are the terms that are unique to a particular content area and are rarely seen outside of that discipline. It is important that teachers use consistent language (in stating goals, in talking in class, and in writing test questions) to describe expected outcomes and use them consistently so that students know what you mean when you use them; in class and on assessments (Constructing Test, 2023).

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, we discussed different forms of assessments, their purpose, examples, and their impact on learning and the field of education. Understanding the purpose and intended use of an assessment is key to measuring student learning appropriately. It is imperative that formative assessments are used continually throughout instruction and that the information and data are used to guide instructional decisions as students are engaged in the learning process. As students progress in their learning, it is essential to measure what students have learned after a lesson, unit, or course. The alignment between standards and assessments is foundational to the assessment development process and educators should create assessments that are both reliable and valid in alignment with the learning objectives of state and national academic or performance standards. As assessment items are constructed, assessing your assessment for quality and rigor is important. 


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