How Do We Define Educational Assessment?

Educational assessment is currently a huge topic of discussion and debate, especially in the United States, where the number of standardized tests students take is increasing. However, many people have a very narrow view of what educational assessment is and what it does. In truth, standardized testing is only one small part of assessment, which is something that takes place in some form in every course, whether it be high school math or a professional training seminar.

So, what exactly is it?

To gain a better understanding, let’s look at a few educational assessment definitions:

From Wikipedia: “Educational assessment is the process of documenting, usually in measurable terms, knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs.”

That’s a very broad definition, and while it may tell us what educational assessment is, it doesn’t explain what it does. Here is another definition:

From Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, and Improving Assessment in Higher Education: “Assessment is the systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving learning and development.”

This definition is better because it explains the overall goal of educational assessment: “improving learning and development.” But we are still left wondering how assessment is done and what tools are used to perform it. Here is one more educational assessment definition:

From Learner-Centered Assessment on College Campuses: Shifting the Focus from Teaching to Learning: “Assessment is the process of gathering and discussing information from multiple and diverse sources in order to develop a deep understanding of what students know, understand, and can do with their knowledge as a result of their educational experiences; the process culminates when assessment results are used to improve subsequent learning.”

This is a much more comprehensive definition. It tells us exactly what assessment entails (“gathering and discussing information from multiple and diverse sources”) as well as both the immediate goal (“develop[ing] a deep understanding of what students know, understand, and can do”) and the broader goal (“improve[ing] subsequent learning”).

When we view assessment from this perspective, we can see that it involves much more than just the administration of standardized tests. In fact, the term assessment can refer to many different activities, including not only formal tests, but also performance-based activities, digital portfolios, and aptitude tests. And, as the definition suggests, assessment doesn’t rely on just one of these activities, but rather on “information from multiple and diverse sources.”

Finally, to add one last piece to our educational assessment definition, let’s look at some main types.

Assessments can be categorized in many different ways, but one of the most common is to divide them into formative and summative types:

Formative assessments are used to gather information about what students are learning in order to improve that learning. For example, pop quizzes, unit tests, and daily writing assignments are all formative assessments. Teachers can use the information provided by these assessments to adjust their teaching going forward.

Summative assessments are measurements of what students have learned at the conclusion of a set of activities. Final exams and grade-level standardized tests are examples of summative assessments.

In this article, we’ve explored the definition of educational assessment from the perspective of not only what it is, but also how it is done and why it’s important. Hopefully, this has given you a better idea of the place of assessment in the education system today.