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Robust Assessment System(s)

STRATEGY: Implement a robust assessment system that includes formative, interim, summative, and diagnostic data and reports to support instruction and equitable preparation among all subgroups.

The fundamental purpose of educational assessment is to understand and support student learning. Significant shifts at the federal level have caused changes for state-level assessment policies. The U.S. Department of Education’s Testing Action Plan dictates that states and districts review their assessment systems to ensure a rigorous alignment of teaching and learning. This plan also promotes different types of assessments, which yield different kinds of information. Assessments can differ in purpose, format, frequency of administration, and use, and since no single assessment should be the sole factor in determining an instructional plan for any student, educators should consider the purpose of educational assessments and put assessment in context by fostering a robust but balanced assessment system, which is critical to preparing all students equitably. 


A robust assessment system includes four categories of educational assessment: formative, interim, summative, and diagnostic. Formative assessment guides learning. Interim assessment guides and tracks learning. Summative assessment certifies learning. Diagnostic assessment is designed to report specifically what students need next, but the results are also used for placement. Understanding the differences between these types of assessments is important in determining how best to use the data and insight that each provides. 

Formative assessment helps educators guide the learning process; it provides students clear, actionable feedback that has an explicit connection to an instructional unit and models of what success looks like. Formative assessment consists of many kinds of strategies, such as student work, observations, well-crafted questions (and their answers), and classroom discussion designed to elicit evidence of student knowledge.  

Interim assessment serves to inform instruction by tracking and guiding learning. Interim assessment is the only type of assessment that can provide educators with data for instructional, predictive, and evaluative purposes. It is used to gather information about the teaching and learning process. Interim assessment can also be formally used to directly guide instruction. Kinds of information garnered through interim assessment include student growth data; effective teaching practices, programs, and initiatives; individualized instructional needs; and benchmarking. Educators can use interim assessment to guide instruction. When this happens, data aggregation is considered the key difference between formative and interim assessment. As Marianne Perie, Scott Marion, and Brian Gong wrote[T]he results of any interim assessment must be reported in a manner allowing aggregation across students, occasions, or concepts. 

Summative assessment helps identify what students have learned and can contribute to programmatic decisions. Since summative assessment happens at the end of the year, the data is more evaluative than instructional and plays a key role at the administrative level in planning curricula, determining professional development, and identifying needed resources. Various assessment instruments fall in this category, including state accountability tests, research reports, oral examinations, portfolios, performance tasks, and end-of-unit or end-of-course tests. 

Diagnostic assessment can be used for multiple purposes, such as diagnosing educational learning needs or identifying the appropriate educational placement.  

First Steps to Consider

  • The first step in fostering a balanced, robust assessment system is to know what is in place. Identify the assessments already administered to all students, subgroups, and special education students.
  • Organize data by assessment, showing what’s assessed at each grade level, how the assessments are given, and when the assessments are administered.
  • Ensure full transparency to parents and students about the assessments administered.
  • Share knowledge and language with regard to assessments by providing a description, a purpose, format examples, frequency of administration, and use of results in the classroom for each type of assessment.
  • Provide professional learning opportunities for teachers to process the types of assessment information.
  • Engage in an assessment inventory to help build collective understanding of the use of results. Teams of teachers and administrators work together to improve the quality of assessments and to improve understanding of how to use data from various assessments appropriately.
  • There are several models for conducting an assessment inventory. Two resources that are free and can be adapted include Achieve’s “Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts” tool and reports from the Center on Standards and Assessment Implementation.

Complexities & Pitfalls

Implementing a robust assessment system is not a magic bullet. An assessment system will not compensate for inadequate curricula, unsound instructional practices, or students’ lack of prerequisite skills. In addition, schools can spend too much on measuring learning rather than balancing assessment with instruction, and not enough time focusing on increasing student motivation and shifting teachers’ beliefs about student learning.

Guiding Questions

  • What are the differences between assessment types within a robust assessment system?
  • Consider the assessments that are administered in the district or school. Are the purposes clear? Are the results used for the intended purposes?
  • What is the purpose of each assessment?
  • What are the gaps or redundancies in the assessment system?
  • Is this assessment of high quality?
  • Is this assessment aligned to the state’s standards?
  • Do teachers find the results from each assessment useful? Why or why not?
  • To what extent do students meet the learning standards?