Assessment is a process of gathering and documenting information about the achievement, skills, abilities, and personality variables of an individual.


Assessment is used in both an educational and psychological setting by teachers, psychologists, and counselors to accomplish a range of objectives. These include the following:

  • to learn more about the competencies and deficiencies of the individual being tested
  • to identify specific problem areas and/or needs
  • to evaluate the individual's performance in relation to others
  • to evaluate the individual's performance in relation to a set of standards or goals
  • to provide teachers with feedback on effectiveness of instruction
  • to evaluate the impact of psychological or neurological abnormalities on learning and behavior
  • to predict an individual's aptitudes or future capabilities

In the early 2000s standardized tests are increasingly used to evaluate performance in U.S. schools. Faced with declining test scores by American students when compared to others around the world, state governments and the federal government have sought ways to measure the performance of schools and bring a measurable accountability to the educational process. Thus, states and the federal government have adopted standardized tests for evaluating knowledge and skills on the assumption that testing is an effective way to measure outcomes of education. One prominent program has been the No Child Left Behind Act that requires schools to meet certain performance standards annually, for their students as a group and also for individual ethnic and racial subgroups. The use of this type of standardized tests is controversial. Many educators feel that it limits the creativity and effectiveness of the classroom teacher and produces an environment of "teaching to the test."

Educational assessments

The choice of an assessment tool depends on the purpose or goal of the assessment. Assessments might be made to establish rankings among individual students, to determine the amount of information students have retained, to provide feedback to students on their levels of achievement, to motivate students by recognizing and rewarding good performances, to assess the need for remedial education, and to evaluate students for class placement or ability grouping. The goal of the assessment should be understood by all stakeholders in the process: students, parents, teachers, counselors, and outside experts. An assessment tool that is appropriate for one goal is often inappropriate for another, leading to misuse of data.

Assessment tools fall broadly into two groups. Traditional assessments rely on specific, structured procedures and instructions given to all test-takers by the test administrator (or to be read by the test-takers themselves). These tests are either norm-referenced or criterion-referenced tests. Standardized tests allow researchers to compare data from large numbers of students or subgroups of students. Alternative assessments are often handled on an individual basis and offer students the opportunity to be more closely involved with the recognition of their progress and to discover what steps they can take to improve.

NORM-REFERENCED ASSESSMENTS In norm-referenced assessments, one person's performance is interpreted in relation to the performance of others. A norm-referenced test is designed to discriminate among individuals in the area being measured and to give each individual a rank or relative measure regarding how he or she performs compared to others of the same age, grade, or other subgroup. Often the mean, or average score, is the reference point, and individuals are scored on how much above or below the average they fall. These tests are usually timed. Norm-referenced tests are often used to tell how a school or school district is doing in comparison to others in the state or nation.

CRITERION-REFERENCED ASSESSMENTS A criterion-referenced assessment allows interpretation of a test-taker's score in relation to a specific standard or criterion. Criterion-referenced tests are designed to help evaluate whether a child has met a specific level of performance. The individual's score is based not on how he or she does in comparison to how others perform, but on how the individual does in relation to absolute expectations about what he or she is supposed to know. An example of a criterion-referenced test is a timed arithmetic test that is scored for the number of problems answered correctly. Criterion-referenced tests measure what information an individual has retained and they give teachers feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching particular concepts.

PERFORMANCE ASSESSMENT Performance assessment can be used to evaluate any learning that is skill-based or behavioral. Performance assessment requires the test-taker to perform a complex task that has to do with producing a certain product or performing a specific task. Performance assessments can be either individual or group-oriented and may involve application of real-life or workplace skills (for example, making a piece of furniture in wood shop).

AUTHENTIC ASSESSMENT Authentic assessment derives its name from the idea that it tests students in skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the real world. Authentic assessment focuses on student task performance and is often used to improve learning in practical areas. An advantage of authentic assessment is that students may be able to see how they would perform in a practical, non-educational setting and thus may be motivated to work to improve.

PORTFOLIO ASSESSMENT Portfolio assessment uses a collection of examples of the actual student's work. It is designed to advance through each grade of school with the student, providing a way for teachers and others to evaluate progress. One of the hallmarks of portfolio assessment is that the student is responsible for selecting examples of his or her own work to be placed in the portfolio. The portfolio may be used by an individual classroom teacher as a repository for work in progress or for accomplishments. Portfolios allow the teacher to evaluate each student in relation to his or her own abilities and learning style. The student controls the assessment samples, helping to reinforce the idea that he or she is responsible for learning and should have a role in choosing the data upon which he or she is judged. Portfolios are often shared by the student and teacher with parents during parent-teacher conferences.

INTERVIEW ASSESSMENT The assessment interview involves a one-on-one or small group discussion between the teacher and student, who may be joined by parents or other teachers. Standardized tests reveal little about the test-taker's thought process during testing. An interview allows the teacher or other administrator to gain an understanding of how the test-taker reached his or her answer. Individual interviews require a much greater time commitment on the part of the teacher than the administration of a standardized test to the entire class at one time. Thus, interviews are most effective when used to evaluate the achievements and needs of specific students. To be successful, interviews require both the teacher and the student to be motivated, open to discussion, and focused on the purpose of the assessment.

JOURNALS Journals have been used as part of the English curriculum since at least the 1980s. In assessment, the journal allows the student to share his or her thoughts on the learning process. A journal may substitute for or supplement a portfolio in providing a student-directed assessment of achievement and goals.

ATTITUDE INVENTORY Attitude is one component of academic success that is rarely measured objectively. An attitude inventory is designed to reveal both positive and negative (or productive and unproductive) aspects of a student's outlook toward school and learning. However, this type of assessment may be of limited use if the student's negative attitude makes him or her unwilling to actively participate in the assessment. By demonstrating a sincere interest in addressing student concerns that affect attitude, a school can improve the effectiveness of attitude inventory assessments.

COMPUTER-AIDED ASSESSMENT Computer-aided assessment is increasingly employed as a supplement to other forms of assessment. A key advantage in the use of computers is the capability of an interactive assessment to provide immediate feedback on responses. Students must be comfortable with computers and reading on a computer screen for these assessments to be successful.

Psychological assessments

Psychological assessment of children is used for a variety of purposes, including diagnosing learning disabilities and behavioral and attention problems. Psychologists can obtain information about a child in three general ways: observation, verbal questioning or written questionnaires, and assignment of tasks. The child's pediatrician, parents, or teacher may ask for psychological assessment to gain a greater understanding of the child's development and needs. There are many different psychological tests , and the psychologist must choose the ones that will provide the most relevant and reliable information in each situation. Often multiple tests are performed. However, most psychological assessments fall into one of three categories: observational methods, personality inventories, or projective techniques.

OBSERVATIONAL ASSESSMENT Observations are made by a trained professional either in a familiar setting (such as a classroom or playroom), an experimental setting, or during an office interview. Toys , dolls, or other items are often included in the setting to provide stimuli. The child may be influenced by the presence of an observer. However, researchers report that younger children often become engrossed in their activities and thus are relatively unaffected by the presence of an observer. Sometimes, for example, if attention deficit is suspected, several people are asked to observe the child under different circumstances: the teacher at school, the parent at home, and the psychologist in an office setting. Observational assessments are usually combined with other types of educational or psychological assessments when learning needs and behavioral problems are being evaluated.

PERSONALITY INVENTORIES A personality inventory is a questionnaire used with older children and adults that contains questions related to the subject's feelings or reactions to certain scenarios. One of the best-known personality inventories for people over age 16 is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a series of over 500 questions used to assess personality traits and psychological disturbances. Interviews or verbal questionnaires for personality assessment may be structured with a specific series of questions or be unstructured, allowing the subject to direct the discussion. Interviewers often use rating scales to record information during interviews.

PROJECTIVE TESTS A projective test asks the test-taker to interpret ambiguous situations. It requires a skilled, trained examiner to administer and interpret a projective test. The reliability of these tests with children is difficult to establish due to their subjective nature, with results varying widely among different examiners. One well-known projective test is the Rorschach Psycho-diagnostic Test, or inkblot test, first devised by the Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach in the 1920s. Another widely used projective test for people ages 14 to 40 is the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), developed at Harvard University in the 1930s. In this test, the subject is shown a series of pictures, each of which can be interpreted in a variety of ways, and asked to construct a story based on each one. An adaptation administered to children aged three to ten is the Children's Apperception Test (CAT). Apperception tests are administered to children individually by a trained psychologist to assess personality, maturity, and psychological health.

ASSIGNMENT OF TASK ASSESSMENT Assignment of tasks is an assessment method involving the performance of a specific task or function. These tests are designed to inform the test administrator about attributes such as the test-taker's abilities, perceptions, and motor coordination. They can be especially helpful in assessing if there is a physical or neurological component that needs to be addressed medically or with occupational, speech, or physical therapy.

Common problems

Assessment of children is challenging given the rapid changes in growth they experience during childhood. In childhood, it is difficult to ensure that the test-taker's responses will be stable for even a short time. Thus, psychologists, educators, and other test administrators are careful to take the stage of childhood into account when interpreting a child's test scores.

Traditional standardized tests rely on specific, structured procedures, which with young children presents some problems. Young children ( preschool and early elementary years) do not have past experience and familiarity with tests and have limited understanding of the expectations of testing procedures. With young test-takers, the test administrator represents a significant factor that influences success. The child must feel comfortable with the test administrator and feel motivated to complete the test exercise. The administrator helps support the test-taker's attention to the test requirements. The testing environment affects all test-takers but may represent a more significant variable for the youngest test-takers.

One shortcoming of standardized testing is that it assumes that the same instrument can evaluate all students. Because most standardized tests are norm-referenced and measure a student's test performance against the performance of other test-takers, students and educators focus their efforts on the test scores, and schools develop curricula to prepare students to take the test. Other criticisms of standardized tests are that they are culturally insensitive and that they may not accurately represent the abilities of children in the United States for whom English is not their first language or who are not a part of mainstream American culture. Finally, in middle and high school settings, disgruntled students may inconspicuously sabotage their tests since these scores do not affect the students' own grades but reflect rather upon the competency of the teacher and the school administration.

Alternative assessments are subject to other concerns. Observer biases and inconsistencies have been identified through study of the assessment procedures. In the halo effect, the observer evaluates the child's behavior in a way that confirms his general previous impression of the child. For example, the observer believes a particular child is happy and loving. If, when the observer assesses that child, the child lays a doll face down on the table, the observer interprets this act as parenting behavior. On the other hand, if the observer believes the child is angry and hostile, when this child is observed laying the doll face down on the table, the observer may interpret the action as aggression. The expectations of the observer conveyed directly or through body language and other subtle cues may also influence how the child performs and how the observer records and interprets his or her observations. This observer bias can influence the outcome of an assessment.

Parental concerns

Parents are justifiably concerned that their child be evaluated fairly and appropriately. They have the right to understand the purpose of the assessment, how it will be performed, how the information will be used, who will see the assessment results, and how the privacy of their child will be protected. Any professional performing an educational or psychological assessment should be willing discuss these concerns and to share the results of the assessment and their implications with the parent. Parents should be willing to share with examiners any information that might alter interpretation of the assessment results (for example, medical problems, cultural concerns).

When to ask for an assessment

Parents should request an assessment from the teacher whenever necessary to understand their child's progress, both in relation to expected grade-level expectations and performance in relation to other children in the class. Most schools and teachers offer parents many opportunities to discuss the assessment of their child. When teacher assessment indicates that a child has special needs or problems, the parent should request an evaluation by the school's child study team or an outside expert. Parents may also want to discuss appropriate assessments with their child's pediatrician and ask for an referral to a child psychologist or psychiatrist.


Authentic task assessment —Evaluation of a task performed by a student that is similar to tasks performed in the outside world.

Criterion-referenced test —An assessment that measures the achievement of specific information or skills against a standard as opposed to being measured against how others perform.

Halo effect —An observer bias in which the observer interprets a child's actions in a way that confirm the observer's preconceived ideas about the child.

Norm-referenced test —A test that measures the performance of a student against the performance of a group of other individuals.

Portfolio —A student-controlled collection of student work products that indicates progress over time.

Standardized test —A test that follows a regimented structure, and each individuals scores may be compared with those of groups of people. In the case of the Cognistat, test taker's scores can be compared to groups of young adults, middle-aged adults, the geriatric, and people who have undergone neurosurgery.

Task —A goal directed activity used in assessment.

See also California Achievement Tests (CAT) ; Children's Apperception Test (CAT) ; Development tests .



Carter, Phillip, and Ken Russell. Psychometric Testing: 1000 Ways to Assess Your Personality, Creativity, Intelligence, and Lateral Thinking. New York: Wiley & Sons, 2001.

Groth-Marnat, Gary. Handbook of Psychological Assessment , 4th ed. New York: Wiley & Sons, 2003.

Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation. The Student Evaluation Standards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2003.


Evaluation Center. 4405 Ellsworth Hall, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008–5237. Web site:

National Association for the Education of Young Children. 1509 16th Street, NW Washington, DC 20036. Web site:

Tish Davidson, A.M.

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