Assessment Education Perspectives

What do you need to know about the 3 main types of assessments?

What do you need to know about the 3 main types of assessments?

Since the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) became law in December 2015, the role of assessments in accountability systems have been hot topics. ESSA provides more flexibility to states in designing accountability systems and creating more balanced systems of assessment. In light of this dialogue, it seems like the right time for a quick refresher on the different types and purposes of assessment.

Educators generally agree on three broad categories of educational assessment: formative, interim, and summative. Formative assessment guides learning. It includes giving clear, actionable feedback to students, sharing learning goals, and modeling what success looks like.

By design, formative assessment:

  • has an explicit connection to an instructional unit
  • consists of many kinds of strategies, and is typically informal
  • helps educators guide the learning process, rather than grade or evaluate student performance

We have several blogs posts on formative assessment; check out How Formative Assessment Plays a Critical Role in Classroom Learning or Empowering Students with Formative Assessment for more information.

Summative assessment certifies learning. Generally, educators administer a summative assessment near the end of an instructional unit to help them answer the question, “What did students learn?”

All sorts of different assessment instruments are used for summative assessment, including:

  • end-of-unit tests and end-of-course tests
  • performance tasks/simulations
  • portfolios
  • oral examinations
  • research reports
  • state accountability tests

Despite this array of summative instruments, state accountability tests most often come to mind. High stakes can be associated with summative assessment, such as selection, promotion, and graduation. And, policymakers use state assessment data to communicate the state of education to the public.

Because summative assessment happens so late in the instructional process, the most effective use of its test data is evaluative versus instructional. For teachers, data can help guide decisions such as assigning grades for a course, promotion to the next grade, credit for courses, and more. Summative assessment data also play a role at the administrative level, where they’re useful assets for planning curricula, determining professional development needs, and identifying the resources the district needs to flourish.

As you may have heard before, an easy way to remember the difference is that formative assessment is assessment for learning, while summative is assessment of learning.

Interim assessment guides and tracks learning. A wide middle ground exists between teachers’ day-to-day formative assessment of student learning and the formal protocols of state summative assessment. This middle ground offers opportunities—captured under the umbrella term interim assessment—to gather information about many things that are relevant to the teaching and learning process, including:

  • individual and collective student growth
  • effectiveness of teaching practice and programs
  • projection of whether a student, class, or school is on track to achieve established benchmarks
  • instructional needs of individual students

Educators can use interim assessments in a formative way to directly guide instruction. When this happens, data aggregation is considered the key difference between formative and interim assessment. This ability to aggregate data at critical points in the learning cycle allows interim assessment to have a broader set of purposes than both formative and summative assessment. As a result, interim assessment is the only type of assessment that provides educators with data for instructional, predictive, and evaluative purposes.

Understanding the differences between these three types of assessments is important in determining how best to use the data and insight each one provides – a key part of our purpose here at For more on different types and purposes of assessment, check out our interactive infographic, blog archive or library of resources.


Kathy Dyer