Understanding the Goals and Types of Assessments

Teacher helping child read

At a fundamental level, many educators have limited knowledge of the scope of the main types of assessments and, more importantly, of how and when to apply these assessments. Without a basic understanding of the goals for each kind of assessment, the process of interpreting and leveraging the data to affect student instruction remains a challenge. Considering the frequency and focus on assessment, the process of assessing student progress can become a stressful and seemingly futile exercise. 

When thinking about assessment for instructional planning, there are four main goals that need to be understood (Torgesen, J. K. [2006] A comprehensive K-3 reading assessment plan: Guidance for school leaders. Portsmouth, NH. RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction):

  1. Identify students who are “at risk” for reading difficulties. This is an initial screener to determine who might need more intensive instruction to have a higher likelihood of reaching grade-level standards by the end of the school year. It is critical to have this information at the beginning of the year, but periodic checks throughout the year are also valuable.

  2. Monitor students during the year to determine whether they are making adequate progress and identify if any students are not progressing or are falling behind. The frequency of monitoring is a reflection of risk; the higher the level of risk, the more frequent the monitoring.

  3. Collect information that will add to a student’s profile of strengths and weaknesses, and allow the teacher to target specific areas of need.

  4. Assess whether the instruction provided in a unit or across the year was successful in helping all students meet standards or grade-level expectations.

Across the country, there is a significant amount of confusion regarding the many labels used for assessments—interim, benchmark, formative, summative, screener, etc. The emphasis should be placed on the goal of the assessment (what questions it can answer) rather than the label. There are many assessment options, but in the context of classroom planning, there are four main types of commonly applied assessment that correspond to the four goals just discussed:

  • Universal Screening (identify):
    Answers the question, “Which of my students are at risk for difficulty?”

    Valid and reliable screening tests can help teachers identify students who are on track as well as those who are at risk, requiring additional student information to be collected (often using a diagnostic tool). Universal screening assessments are typically administered most broadly at the beginning of the school year, and scores help identify the intensity of instruction these students will require.

  • Progress Monitoring (monitor):
    Answers the question, “How much progress are my students making?”

    Progress monitoring tests are administered periodically (e.g., weekly, monthly, etc.) to determine whether students are making progress; the higher the risk, the more frequent the monitoring. These assessments help teachers identify which students have mastered specific skills and provide some details around the skills that students have or have not mastered during a particular time period.

  • Diagnostic (collect):
    Answers the question, “Where do I need to focus intervention?”

    Often more reliable than quick, informal tools, diagnostic tests provide data that offers a deeper look at a broader set of skills. The information obtained from diagnostic tests can assist in planning more effective instruction. Because diagnostic tests are often lengthier, they should be given when additional information is needed or there is a question of how reliable the results from a screener or progress monitoring tool are in a particular instance. The ability to identify strengths and weaknesses in a diagnostic profile is one important way to help guide interventions for students who are experiencing difficulty or to enhance instruction for above-grade-level students.

  • Outcome (assess):
    Answers the question, “Have my students learned the material that has been taught?”

    Also sometimes known as summative assessments, outcome assessments are administered at the end of the year or the end of a unit. They measure the extent to which the student has learned the skills or mastered the standards covered throughout the unit or year. These assessments are important because they give administrators and teachers feedback about the overall effectiveness of their curriculum and instruction.

Before selecting or administering an assessment for a school or district, it is absolutely critical to understand the core objective of the test being administered, as well as how reliable and valid the results of the assessment are when using them to make decisions. 

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When assessments are properly administered and integrated into instruction, the resulting data can provide valuable information. To be effective, though, teachers and administrators must first understand the purpose of these assessments since they each yield different kinds of data. Read the white paper by Lexia’s Chief Learning Officer, Dr. Liz Brooke, to learn about the types of assessments and how to create a purpose-driven assessment plan.

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