feedback from computer-assisted instruction, classroom observation, written work, homework, and conversations with and among students—all interpreted by the teacher in light of additional information about the students, the schooling context, and the content being studied.

In this report, these situations are referred to as assessment to assist learning, or formative assessment. These assessments provide specific information about students’ strengths and difficulties with learning. For example, statistics teachers need to know more than the fact that a student does not understand probability; they need to know the details of this misunderstanding, such as the student’s tendency to confuse conditional and compound probability. Teachers can use information from these types of assessment to adapt their instruction to meet students’ needs, which may be difficult to anticipate and are likely to vary from one student to another. Students can use this information to determine which skills and knowledge they need to study further and what adjustments in their thinking they need to make.

A recent review (Black and Wiliam, 1998) revealed that classroom-based formative assessment, when appropriately used, can positively affect learning. According to the results of this review, students learn more when they receive feedback about particular qualities of their work, along with advice on what they can do to improve. They also benefit from training in self-assessment, which helps them understand the main goals of the instruction and determine what they need to do to achieve. But these practices are rare, and classroom assessment is often weak. The development of good classroom assessments places significant demands on the teacher. Teachers must have tools and other supports if they are to implement high-quality assessments efficiently and use the resulting information effectively.

Assessment of Individual Achievement

Another type of assessment used to make decisions about individuals is that conducted to help determine whether a student has attained a certain level of competency after completing a particular phase of education, whether it be a classroom unit or 12 years of schooling. In this report, this is referred to as assessment of individual achievement, or summative assessment.1

Some of the most familiar forms of summative assessment are those used by classroom teachers, such as end-of-unit tests and letter grades assigned when a course is finished. Large-scale assessments—which are administered at the direction of users external to the classroom—also provide


The committee recognizes that all assessment is in a sense “formative” in that it is intended to provide feedback to the system to inform next steps for learning. For a more nuanced discussion of the formative-summative distinction, see Scriven (1991).

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