Assessment Education Perspectives

Assessment Misconceptions – and What Can Be Done to Overcome Them


Our partner NWEA recently released their new National Agenda to promote their work in policy and advocacy on behalf of all students. NWEA’s Policy & Advocacy work is focused on building strong partnerships with education stakeholders and leading national efforts that ignite positive change to local, state, and national systems. The third item on the agenda item fits nicely with our mantra here at

Grow educator stakeholder understanding of assessment as a positive tool to influence the practice of teaching and learning. Unless educators have a solid understanding of the role of assessment in teaching and learning, many students will be left behind. NWEA will continue to work to change the national dialogue on assessment and improve educator practice.

A balanced set of education assessments can give teachers and educators (as well as students and parents) the data they need to improve student learning. Unfortunately, there are so many misconceptions about what assessments do, how they do it, and why, that it’s difficult for all those involved to make sense of this balance and to understand each assessment’s purpose. Misconceptions that we see quite often (and that were highlighted earlier this year at TeachThought) are as follows:

  1. Assessment and evaluation are the same. As the blog suggests, too many people (involved in education or otherwise) put these two in the same category when they shouldn’t. More often than not, an evaluation is a graded outcome of a student’s learning around a particular topic, while assessment provides timely feedback of a student’s progress toward meeting learning outcomes. In the case of an evaluation, the result is whether a student learned what was taught. An assessment should provide the teacher with where they are in learning what is being taught.
  2. Most assessment is summative. We’ve discussed at some length the benefits of minute-by-minute, day-by-day assessment that is formative in nature. These formative assessments can be done throughout the course of the year to make sure that students are where they need to be in their learning. A summative assessment, in contrast, is the year-end tool to determine how well a student did in their learning. The difference, of course, is the ability to use the assessment data in a timely manner to inform instructional change.
  3. Assessment is a one-way communication. Most formative and interim assessments provide data that arm teachers with what they need to open a dialogue with students. Teachers have the ability to create individualized learning plans with students that support their unique learning needs. Working together with students, teachers can turn assessments into powerful tools for understanding student growth.
  4. Assessment is for grading purposes. While assessments do play a role in grades and educational outcomes, they often are not graded (and should not be). Formative and interim assessments, in particular, provide data to help teachers map instruction so that all students are meeting their learning targets and outcomes. They are a means to a grade, but certainly not graded components that should be worked into their final score.
  5. Student work should be given a grade or a mark. In the case of summative assessments, this may hold true, but with most other assessments of learning, there is no grade or mark. Rather, it’s like a thermometer reading of where students are in their learning at that moment.

Last year, our partner NWEA worked with Gallup to conduct a survey of students, teachers, parents, principals and superintendents on their attitudes and beliefs about assessment. While overall the results show some surprising alignment around the need for assessment that supports learning, it also shows divisions in the education community with regard to the current state of assessment in schools and lack of understanding among all groups about the different types of assessments and their purpose. The survey data led to some ideas that need to be considered, so that a better understanding of assessment and how to utilize assessment data replaces many of the above misconceptions.

The study recommends:

  • Get ESSA implementation right. Education thought leaders, national education organizations, teacher unions, state departments of education and assessment publishers, among others, should partner to develop local, regional and national education forums for these important stakeholders. Town halls, webinars and other information-sharing events would be a good start to this ongoing process.
  • Keep student learning at the center of new assessment systems, and keep students and families informed. Consider how new systems might include assessments and data that are more relevant to student careers and college goals, and involve students in school, district and state planning processes. Determine the purpose(s) to be served and then find the best assessment to achieve that goal. Couple these efforts with an ongoing communication plan that engages all stakeholders throughout the year.
  • Dedicate resources for assessment knowledge and data-use training, especially in low-income schools, to promote equity and to improve learning for all students. Support districts in understanding the options for appropriate use of federal and state funds for ongoing assessment education for teachers. Help teachers develop best practices for assessment use in their classroom and school, and provide time for teacher training and collaboration to use assessment results effectively.
  • Change the national dialogue about assessment. Federal, state and district leaders should foster opportunities for regularly scheduled dialogue on assessment among stakeholders. Resources could be allocated for cross-stakeholder partnerships to promote education on assessment literacy. It is crucial that educators and families understand the different assessment types and the purpose that each serves in order to promote school and community support to advance equity and excellence for all of our nation’s students.

Assessment is a fundamental part of the teaching and learning process, but more time needs to be focused on what a well-balanced assessment system is and can do to help teachers improve student learning.