What Is The Difference Between Assessment Of And Assessment For Learning?

It boils down to purpose. In 50 Ways To Measure Understanding, I talked about the purpose of assessment:

Is the assessment for the teacher or the student? If you’re not clear about why you’re assessing (and what you’re going to do with the data the test provides) you’re wasting a lot of time, energy, and resources–your own and that of the students.

Think like a doctor: You have to have a plan what you’re going to do with what you learn from the data before you give the assessment–ideally, before you even design the tool to begin with.

Assessment for learning is commonly referred to as formative –that is, designed to inform instruction. If we can agree that the purpose of a test is to provide data to revise planned instruction, then the only type that’s not ‘for learning’ is ‘of learning,’ commonly referred to as summative.

Assessment is generally broken down into three categories: before instruction (pre-test), during instruction (formative), and after instruction (summative). To further complicate matters, it could be argued that pre-assessment is both of and for learning–that is, it assesses ‘prior knowledge’ (as a pre-test) and that data is then used to revise planned instruction (making it formative).

In truth, most of this is semantics and a bit confusing. There are many ways to measure understanding and the primary distinction in most K-12 classrooms is function: What is the assessment supposed to do? If you’re using the ‘test’ so that you can see what students do and don’t know so that you can more accurately plan future learning lessons and activities, then it’s for learning (even if you’re obviously doing so by performing an assessment of learning).

If instead, the tool is merely a kind of benchmark to see ‘how well they can do’ and you’re moving on, then it’s primarily an assessment of learning. There is significant overlap between the two; in fact, the same test given in one circumstance would be considered ‘of learning’ while in another circumstance be considered ‘for learning.’

In short then, the difference is a matter of function and purpose–a matter of ‘who’: assessment of learning is a way to see what the students can do while assessment for learning is a way to see what the teachers should do in response.

You can check out more of TeachThought’s resources for teachers or contact us for related professional development, and let us know in the comments if there is a distinction or example you think other teachers could benefit from.