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Education testing: Assessment OF learning versus assessment FOR learning

One of the major problems in edureformia is the constant conflation of assessment OF learning with assessment FOR learning. We’ve all been a part of education testing conversations when we realized, “Hey, we aren’t talking about the same thing here.” Next time, rather than just nodding along, I suggest you dig into the disconnect and discuss away.

What is the difference?

Assessment OF learning involves looking at assessment information at the end of the teaching and learning process to rank students’ achievement levels against a standard. It is summative in nature and typically involves standardized tests. Assessment OF learning scores are often used to rate teachers’ or schools’ ability to move student achievement based on the results of single, point-in-time tests — e.g., those generated by Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA) or state tests.

Assessment FOR learning embeds assessment processes throughout the teaching and learning process to constantly adjust instructional strategy. While it can include test data, it also addresses other quantitative and even qualitative data, and even encompasses a great deal of anecdotal and descriptive data. Using NWEA in conjunction with teacher generated daily data (checks for understanding, exit tickets, observations of student engagement) to alter instructional strategy during lesson or unit delivery is an example of assessment FOR learning in action.

Can they both be present?

Certainly, there’s no either/or equation at play. Tests like NWEA and Scantron Performance Series are increasingly being used to evaluate student progress and provide data for instructional planning and decision making.

The distinction, though, is that in assessment FOR learning, the test data is just one data element in the discussion, and the assessment process is constant rather than at a single point in time.

What’s the future?

One day I hope that the conflation goes away. Why?  Because what we should really be talking about is assessment AS learninga process where students are aware of their own learning objectives, where they take responsibility for meeting those objectives, and where teachers assist students in their individualized learning paths. (An added benefit of assessment as learning is that it can be used to help students self-reflect on their behavior and attitudes as well as their learning.)

Only when we stop doing assessment to students or for students and do assessment with students will we truly be building their intellectual independence and ability to think critically.

To hear teachers talking about the results of using assessment AS learning, watch this video on how students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools responded to teachers’ efforts to share assessment results on an ongoing basis.

Leave a Comment


  • Milan Sevak

    Joe, great post – I’ve long been an advocate for assessment as learning ever since read Lorna Earl’s book with that title.  At the end of the day, it’s what we expect adults to do in personal and professional spheres of life. 

  • Ppiety

    Another perspective of assessments is how and under what
    circumstances they can be shared.  Whether
    or not they are digital has big implications for this. 

    While a teacher could use paper assessments in their classes
    (and this is often best for classroom practice!), they can also use assessments
    that are digital and can then be easily shared in reporting and analysis platforms.  Importantly, these assessments can be more
    easily shared with school leaders and professional learning communities, both
    of which are important for school culture and collaboration.  Schools where information about students is
    kept within each teachers classrooms are like collections of black boxes where
    collaboration is low.  Schools that share
    information about students are more likely to collaborate. 

    Assessments, then, and other forms of information such as
    examples of student assignments and work can be tools for school cultures and
    for asking questions about individual students across classrooms as well as inside classrooms.  There is research that points to school cultures as very important for student succes. 


    • Joe


      Thanks for reading and commenting.  Looking forward to your book on data in education.  You make a great observation about the importance of school cultures to student success.  I am working on a post on the link between school culture and data.  Stay tuned.


  • Kickboard

    Another great article, Joe. Love the dichotomy between assessing “to/for” and “with” and your inclusion of assessment as a means to more holistic reflection.