<span class='p-name'>Six criteria used to describe assessments</span>

Six criteria used to describe assessments

In earlier posts I discussed formative and/or summative assessments, and journaling as a good opportunity for implementing one form of formative assessment.

Several readers reached out and asked that I drill down into assessments a bit more to explain these processes. In this post I’ll describe the six categories, or criteria that can be used to describe assessments.

False dichotomies

As a general disclaimer, I believe these are “false” criteria, or dichotomies into which we place assessment tools and practices. I think assessment tools and practices are to be viewed in the “eye of the beholder.” That is to say that an assessment is primarily to be defined by my purposes as the implementer of the assessment. If I’m developing, or administering it to someone else for the purposes of data collection…I determine what it is for.

Now that we have that initial caveat out of the way, let’s take a look at the six criteria that can be used to describe assessments.


Formal assessments can be viewed as pre-planned, and systematic data gathering events or tools. Formal assessments generally have data-driven reasons that support conclusions made about the learner.

Informal assessments are spontaneous, unsystematic observations, or attempts to collect data or evidence. Informal assessments are generally not data-driven reasons, but are rather guided by content and student performance.

As an example, a formal assessment may be a criterion referenced test that an educator administers to students at the end of a unit of study. An informal assessment may be an observation conducted of students as they work collaboratively in class.


Paper-Pencil assessments refers to traditional student assessment formats such as written tests. These may also include filling in bubbles on a scannable answer sheet.

Performance-based assessments have a learner demonstrate specific abilities. The learner is provided an opportunity to demonstrate that they have mastered specific skills and competencies by performing or producing something.

As an example, a paper/pencil assessment may have students study graphs, and then identify them and indicate their values in their responses. A performance-based assessment may have students count the number of cars that pass through an intersection and graph out this information to present to the local safety officers.


Traditional assessments are ones in which the learning is assessed separate from real-world tasks.

Authentic assessments are ones in which learning is assessed as it is being applied in the context of real-world tasks. A more elaborate definition of authenticity suggests that three factors determine the authenticity of an assessment: the task, the context, and the evaluation criteria.

As an example, having a student memorize a scientific formula would be viewed as a traditional assessment. Having learners use and apply the formula to solve a practical problem would be an authentic assessment.


A standardized test is developed for use across multiple classrooms, in multiple schools. Standardized tests may also be administered in classrooms across a region, and perhaps across a nation…or multiple countries. A standardized test asks that all test takers answer the same questions, and these responses are scored in a “standard” or consistent manner.

A teacher-developed assessment is typically developed by educators to measure learning objectives by their students, in their classrooms. A teacher-developed assessment may be used to gauge student comprehension on an area of instruction, and help guide future instruction.

An example of a standardized test would be achievement tests designed to measure the knowledge and skills of students and academic progress made over a period of time. Although this may be designed by educators, and administered by the classroom teacher, it becomes a standardized test when the development and implementation is not entirely controlled by the classroom teacher. The analysis also focuses on comparing students, educators, and/or programs across educational settings.


A criterion-referenced assessment assesses what a student knows and doesn’t know relative to a pre-determined criteria. The criteria are usually a fixed set of predetermined criteria such as learning standards or frameworks.

A norm-references assessment examines how a student performs relative to his or her peers. This assessment compares the performance of a student against the performance of other individuals in their peer group. The “norm” in the title comes from the fact that these scores have gone through a process in which all items and scores have been compared against a “norming group.”

An example of this would be an assessment used to determine whether a student knows a body of knowledge and can receive a license or certificate. An example from teacher education would be the need for pre-service teachers to demonstrate knowledge in their subject area on the Praxis exams. An example of a norm-referenced assessment would be the SAT or ACT in which students are compared to their peers.


Formative assessments are conducted before, or during instruction. The purpose is to facilitate instruction, scaffold students, and plan for future instruction.

Summative assessments are generally conducted after a block of instruction and are used to assess a student’s final gains and achievement within the context of learning objectives and goals.

I drill down into greater depth in this earlier post on the subject.

Six criteria of assessments

I believe that having these six “big boxes” into which we can describe, or categorize assessments means that we won’t catch everything. Many assessments straddle the lines between each of these categories. Furthermore, the purpose or intent of the assessment will help determine the grouping mechanisms.

Many assessments will exist across multiple criteria, or change their purpose or use depending on the needs of the educator and learners.

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