When We Talk About K-12 Assessment

Assessment lingo — the language of endless slide presentations and hefty reports — can be intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. When we talk about assessment, we’re really talking about something experienced, expert teachers do every day. Teachers work constantly to determine what students know, and how to push their learning further.

The challenge of talking about assessment is to connect what happens in classrooms to what happens in district offices and statehouses. If students, teachers, administrators, parents and guardians all share a common vocabulary and understanding of assessment, the higher likelihood individual, school, district, and state-level goals can be met.

We can distinguish the different forms of assessment by the different questions educators want the assessment to answer. Three assessment terms we’ll focus on here — formative, summative and interim summative assessment — work in a sequence and optimally within a learning management system.


Formative assessment asks, “How are we doing?” It aims to understand how students are progressing toward learning goals in the middle of the learning process.

Teachers can only know if students are learning a concept if they ask them to demonstrate their knowledge. In STEM courses, for example, low-stakes homework problems show how students are doing before they head into a higher-stakes test. In writing-intensive classes, essay drafts serve the same purpose. Information yielded from formative assessment is actively used by both teachers and students. Teachers’ feedback helps students better understand what specific learning support they may need, or even how to help their peers with similar challenges. Teachers use the information to help guide instruction decisions based on student needs or discover new learning opportunities for their students.

Formative assessment tools and resources are the forms of assessment that teachers and students interact with most frequently in the classroom.


Summative accountability assessment asks, “How did we do?” Examples that often come to mind are end-of-year exams and state-mandated assessments. It’s the form of assessment that prompts the most worry in students, teachers and administrators alike. However, summative assessment shouldn’t be viewed with concern, but rather as an integral part of improving learning outcomes along the way.

In a broad context, summative results help educators diagnose students’ readiness for the next learning experience. They also can inform the pedagogy and policy that guide students toward big-picture goals.


Interim assessment sits in between formative and summative assessment and asks, “Where are we right now?” It aims to help teachers understand what the student knows, provide a baseline, and be used iteratively to help teachers understand student growth and whether instructional adjustments should be made.

For instance, a teacher might discover that a student, or even the majority of their students, need additional instruction on how to organize a persuasive essay. By keeping tune with student learning throughout, teachers can make more informed curriculum and instructional strategy choices.

Even though students are the ones taking tests and writing final essays, assessment is really a process of self-reflection for educators. Ultimately it’s about asking ourselves, “Are we helping students learn?”

To help answer that question teachers, administrators, policymakers, parents and guardians, and students should understand assessment purposes and goals.