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What is a comprehensive assessment?

Mary DeanOctober 22, 2019


Comprehensive assessments are an integral part of education. Whether you like it or not, evaluating students to see what they know is as much a part of the classroom as the lesson delivery itself. But should it be this way?

Regardless of what side of the fence you are on when it comes to the use (or overuse) of assessments, it’s important to know how to develop a relevant, comprehensive measure of progress. This insight gives educators more control over their classrooms and strengthens their ability to help students succeed academically.

What is a comprehensive assessment?

Simply put, a comprehensive assessment is an evaluation tool or system that allows teachers to do the following things:

  1. Assess students’ overall understanding of the curriculum or skill
  2. Boost students’ learning through improved teaching strategies

Unlike a single quiz or test, a comprehensive assessment blends multiple strategies. The end result? You learn more about your students’ level of understanding and are able to identify their strengths and weaknesses.

Students completing work
Photo: Google Edu

Comprehensive assessment in education

A comprehensive assessment includes at least three different types of assessments:

  • Formative
  • Summative
  • Interim

So, what does each of these encompass? 

1. Formative assessments

There are many different types of formative assessments. It’s worth noting that it isn’t the structure of the testing that makes it formative. Rather, it’s how teachers use the assessments.

A formative assessment is an in-process evaluation done while students are learning. If students are having trouble understanding a particular subject or skill, this type of test setup can help teachers gauge where students are and figure out a plan for what happens next.

Here are some formative options that teachers can use as part of a comprehensive assessment:

  • Intentional questioning strategies to find out what students know
  • Evaluative prompts to encourage self-assessment, such as, “How could you improve this assignment?”
  • Low-stakes quizzes and polls — ones that aren’t graded (or, if they are, account for a very minor fraction of the final grade)
  • Entry slips that show what students know before the lesson begins
  • Exit tickets used to assess students’ understanding of lesson material quickly
  • Platforms like Classcraft and Flubaroo
  • Peer and self-assessments
  • Journaling, debriefs, and other checks for understanding

Something worth noting about formative assessment is that it’s highly versatile — it can be used for much more than simply evaluating a student’s progress. Classcraft’s Quick Review tool, for example, helps teachers quickly create formative assessments that indicate how well students are learning the content while also making the process more enjoyable for them. This gets them more engaged and excited about their own learning and improvement because the assessment doubles as both a quiz and a fun instructional activity.

students working on their school laptops in class
Photo: Google Edu

2. Summative assessments

Summative assessments are the most commonly known (and used) type of assessment. These types of evaluations typically happen after a few lessons or at the end of a unit. Whereas formative assessments are usually ungraded, summative assessments traditionally receive a numerical or letter grade. Here are a few more ways in which summative assessments differ from formative checks:

  • Given at the end of a chapter or unit, not during a lesson
  • Cover larger amounts of content than formative assessments
  • Used to assess exactly what students have learned, not necessarily to improve learning
  • Emphasize the final product of the learning, not the process itself
  • Used to assign grades, not to monitor progress

Written assessments, performance and oral pieces, and standardized tests are all examples of summative assessments. Although summative evaluations get a bad rap from those who see them as biased, inaccurate, and demotivating, they can be an effective part of a comprehensive assessment.

For one, they motivate students to pay attention in class and to study because they have a direct impact on the final grade that a student receives. Summative testing also helps identify more significant gaps in learning or teaching. Finally, it gives students the opportunity to apply what they have learned, which is an integral part of retaining information in the long term.

3. Interim assessments

Interim assessments are a mixture of the two types described above.

Their use is similar to formative assessments: to identify student strengths and weaknesses and to improve teaching or learning. However, there is an extra element with interim assessments that isn’t present with other types of tests — the data you derive from these assessments are often used to determine if your students are on track to pass required standardized state testing.

Like summative evaluations, students take interim assessments throughout the academic year, after blocks of teaching have taken place. They are similar to benchmark assessments, which are usually given at intervals set by school administrators, not individual classroom teachers. However, interim assessments do not always follow such a rigorous time schedule.

The goals of interim testing are to:

  • Track academic growth over time (of students, groups, and classes).
  • Identify patterns in learning or gaps in understanding of individual students and groups.
  • Aid in determining whether students should receive additional support, such as through response to intervention (RTI).
  • Help parents understand how their children are progressing and identify specific areas in which they need support.
Question mark neon signage
Photo: Emily Morter/Unsplash

What does a comprehensive assessment look like in the classroom?

Ms. Raley, a third-grade teacher, spent the last few weeks focusing on third-grade Common Core multiplication standards. Every class period, she used formative assessments to make sure that her students understood the concepts she presented.

For example, she used exit tickets to make sure that her students understood that 4 x 5 and 5 x 4 have the same product. She also used peer assessments and partnering strategies to make sure to not leave any students behind. Her students were also expected to keep detailed notes in a folder and participate in a “notebook check” every few days. None of these formative assessments counted toward students’ grades; they guided her instruction.

At the end of each week, Mrs. Raley had her students complete a multiplication facts quiz for a grade. After two weeks, students took a 100-point test on comparative multiplication. A unit test was also administered right before the class moved on to division. A few weeks later, the students took an interim assessment on the computer. It included multiplication problems as well as other types of math problems.

Mrs. Raley used these results to determine which students needed more help with multiplication. Then, she spent some extra class time reviewing with these students one on one while the other children worked independently. Because she had a comprehensive assessment system in place, Mrs. Raley was able to ensure that students were where they needed to be academically.

Person using pencil
Photo: Ben Mullins/Unsplash

Benefits of a comprehensive assessment 

Each of these assessment methods has its benefits and can play a part in promoting student success. Separately, they can have a marginal impact. Together, formative, interim, and summative assessments allow students to excel in the classroom.

All these assessments aid in monitoring student progress, guiding placement, assessing teaching method effectiveness, and providing intervention/support inside the classroom. Comprehensive assessments help parents stay informed and influence school funding allocations. You can use the data to notify the public of school progress and influence state-level educational decisions.

By blending together these three types of assessments, teachers are able to tailor learning so that all students reach their highest academic potential.

Photo: F1 Digitals / Pixabay

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