A Guide to Types of Assessment: Diagnostic, Formative, and Summative

Assessments come in many shapes and sizes. For those who are new to assessment or just starting out, the terms can be hard to sort out or simply unfamiliar. Knowing one type of assessment from another can be a helpful way to understand how best to use assessment to your advantage. That’s why we’ve taken the time to layout the different types of assessment for you in this post.

The multi-faceted nature of assessments means that educators can leverage them in a number of ways to provide valuable formal or informal structure to the learning process. The main thing to remember is that the assessment is a learning tool. What all assessments have in common is that they provide a snapshot of student understanding at a particular time in the learning process.

Reasonably so, when you were a k-12 student yourself, you may not have been aware of the variety of assessments that teachers leverage.  To the average student, or anyone who has ever been a student, the word ‘test’ has a pretty clear cut definition and it usually includes some level of anxiety and expectation about a final outcome.  But, to educators, tests – or assessments – are actually quite multi-faceted and have both formal and informal places throughout the learning process.

race start to finish

In the runner’s metaphor, diagnostic assessments happen before the race starts, formative assessments happen during, and summative assessments at the end

Assessments can run the gamut from start to finish when it comes to instruction. Think of it like a long distance race that has a start and finish line and many stations to refuel in between.  The race can be any instructional period of time, such as a unit, a quarter, or even the full year.  In this metaphor, the student is the runner and the teacher is the coach who is trying to help the student run the race as well as they possibly can.  Different assessments types, when utilized by the coach (teacher) in the right way, can help the runner (student) run the race better and more effectively.

Some assessments are helpful before the race even begins to help determine what the best running strategy is (diagnostic). Some assessments are beneficial during the race to track progress and see if adjustments to the strategy should be made during the race (formative). And some assessments are best at the very end of the race, to review performance, see how you did, and see how to improve for the next race (summative).

Assessments help the teacher determine what to teach, how to teach, and in the end, how effectively they taught it.

Assessments can run the gamut from start to finish when it comes to instruction. Think of it like a race that has a start and finish line and many stations to refuel in between.

If you have ever asked the question, “What is a formative assessment?” or have been confused by formative assessment vs. summative assessment or interim vs final, that’s OK! Below you’ll find a 3 part primer on the types of assessments a student will likely see in his/her school career. Within each article you’ll also discover sample assessments that are ready for you to assign to your students. 

Dig Deeper into Different Types of Assessment: