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Assessment Basics

The role of assessment in schools continues to evolve along with new challenges in education. To help you stay on top of the latest requirements and trends, DRC|CTB offers this overview of how schools use educational assessment and the most common types of assessment.

What is the role of educational assessment in education today?

As the nation searches for ways to improve student achievement, educators and policy makers continue to evaluate and reform their education systems. Educational testing, or assessment, is a key component of all education systems. Assessments can be used in schools to monitor educational systems for public accountability; help improve curricula; evaluate the effectiveness of teaching and instructional practices; measure studentachievement; and determine a student's mastery of skills.

Although educational testing is a complex field, there are several basic principles that provide a foundation for further understanding.

What are the key foundational principles for educational assessment?

Standards, Then Testing

When states and communities set out to reform their education systems and schools, it is imperative that a logical sequence of events be followed toward setting and achieving goals. First, goals for each education system must be set. Second, standards need to be adopted that outline what children should know and be able to do at certain levels. These standards should be written in a way that will help students meet the stated goals. Following the setting of standards, curricula need to be produced that will help teachers help their students meet the standards. And lastly, assessments should be developed to measure students' progress toward meeting the standards. In other words, assessment should follow, not lead, the movement to reform our schools. As we continue to find ways to improve education, it is important for educators and policy makers to stick with a sequence that starts with goal setting and ends with assessment. Only then can we build and use new tests that accurately measure student achievement.

Tests Measure Educational Progress—They Don't Create It

The purpose of tests is to deliver accurate and reliable information, not to drive educational reform. Some politicians and policy makers have called for new tests, thinking that these alone will create educational achievement. What they are really looking for is better results. It is important for school administrators and policy makers to understand that a new assessment system cannot cure an ailing education system. Tests do not create better students. Good teachers and good schools do.

The problems facing our nation's education system are serious. There is no single cause, and therefore no single cure. There are no shortcuts to improving student achievement and creating a world-class workforce. As we continue our search for ways to improve student achievement, we need to keep our long-term goal in mind and not rush into thinking that a new testing system will create better schools.

No Single Test Does Everything—The Importance of Multiple Measures

No single test can do it all. A diagnostic test to determine a car's emission level will not tell you if the tires need air. A different procedure will provide the mechanic with that information. The same goes for tests in education. No single test can ascertain whether all educational goals are being met.

A variety of tests—multiple measures—is necessary to provide educators with a well-rounded view of what students know and can do. Just as different tests provide different information, no one kind of test can tell us all we need to know about a student's learning. This "multiple-measures approach" to assessment is the keystone to valid, reliable and fair information about student achievement.

Any one type of test—whether it be norm-referenced, multiple-choice or performance assessment—is only one part of a balanced approach to assessment. Some tests, for example, are designed to indicate whether a student needs additional work in specific subjects, while others measure overall group progress toward broadly stated goals. Because curricular emphases differ from state to state, as do the purposes of different testing programs, a multiple-measures approach means that states and local school districts will often use different types of tests to assess students.

The Importance of Valid, Fair and Reliable Assessments

All tests and test types—whether they are standardized, multiple-choice achievement tests or performance assessments—should be held to the same high technical standards for delivering accurate information. No test should be selected and administered to students without first determining how its results will be used and its appropriateness to the subject matter being assessed. Furthermore, no test should be used without reviewing its technical strengths, including fairness, validity and reliability.

All assessments should be designed, piloted, and published using nationally accepted technical standards such as those developed by the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council of Measurement in Education. In recent years, many new assessments and test formats have been developed. These tests, too, must be held to these same high standards. We should not permit unvalidated tests—especially those with high-stakes outcomes—to be administered to students.

What are the types of educational assessment?

Each day millions of American school students take tests. Over 95% of these exams are "pop quizzes," oral presentations, or some other type of teacher-made test. However, standardized assessments developed by test publishers—the type of test that best evaluates student learning over time in comparison with others—usually receive the most attention. Typically, such tests are both standardized and norm-referenced. They are used only once or twice a year, and provide objective information about each student's progress in mastering the school curriculum.

For many years, educators and the public perceived standardized tests as exclusively norm-referenced, multiple-choice examinations. That was not exactly true then and it certainly is not true today. A standardized test is one that is always given in a consistent manner, with the same directions, the same questions, and the same time limits. Thus, scores can be compared with confidence in test validity and reliability. All assessments administered within a state or local testing program should be standardized, no matter what type: performance based, norm-referenced, or criterion (standards) referenced.

Educators recognize the value of using a variety of tests. A comprehensive assessment program may include several different measures, among them the following basic types and formats:

Aptitude Test

A test consisting of items selected and standardized so that the test predicts a person's future performance on tasks not obviously similar to those in the test. Aptitude tests may or may not differ in content from achievement tests, but they do differ in purpose. Aptitude tests consist of items that predict future learning or performance; achievement tests consist of items that sample the adequacy of past learning.

Criterion-referenced tests

This type of assessment is designed to compare a student's test performance with clearly defined curricular objectives, skill levels, or areas of knowledge. While norm-referenced test results compare student performance to peers—for example, a student spelled better than 95 percent of his or her classmates—results from criterion-referenced tests compare the performance to a predefined set of objectives—and demonstrated mastery (knowledge) of a specific subject, such as long division.

Formative assessment

A process used by teachers and students during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students' achievement of intended instructional outcomes. Formative assessment provides educators with critical information about student and classroom progress and can be used to adjust the teacher's approach and the pace of instruction throughout the year. Formative assessment is often used as a tool for uncovering opportunities for instructional intervention because it gives teachers information about where additional practice and support may be needed. Importantly, formative assessments help deliver this information while there is still time in the school year to improve student achievement.

Multiple-choice tests

Many standardized tests give students the opportunity to select responses to test questions from among a number of specific choices. This format, called "selected response" or "multiple choice," is efficient and practical. Carefully designed multiple-choice questions can provide valid information about students' knowledge and their ability to reason logically and apply complex thinking processes to solve problems. Norm-referenced tests are usually administered in a multiple-choice format, where the correct answer is provided along with incorrect answers. These are the tests most adults remember taking in their youth. In most instances, multiple-choice tests are scored by computers and provide impartial, accurate results.

Performance assessments

Tests that directly assess pupil performance. Students may be asked to write an essay or short response, draw a conclusion, respond to a reading passage, or perform a science experiment. Teachers or other school personnel observe students' performances and rate the outcomes. This kind of assessment is also useful in measuring listening skills, writing, and the process of problem solving. Performance assessments can also be standardized so that the test is given and scored the same way at each administration.

Norm-referenced tests

Norm-referenced achievement tests measure basic concepts and skills commonly taught in schools throughout the country. These tests are not designed as precise measures of any given curriculum or single instructional program. Results from norm-referenced tests provide information that compares students' achievement with that of a representative national sample. This gives teachers the opportunity to compare their students with other students. So, when a teacher says that a student scored at the 82nd percentile, that student's score was equal to or better than 81 percent of the scores of all the students who took the same norm-referenced test during the norming process.

Standardized achievement tests

These tests are commonly used to provide valid, reliable, and unbiased information about students' knowledge in various areas. "Standardized" means that the test is always given and scored the same way. The same questions are asked and the same directions are given for each test. Specific time limits are set, and each student's performance may be compared with that of all the other students taking the same test. Most standardized achievement tests are norm-referenced, multiple-choice tests.

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