Assessment Types – Pros and Cons

  • February 2, 2021
  • Blog


There are a variety of tools that can be used to measure student learning. From standardized tests to exit tickets, the purposes and intended audiences of assessment tools vary greatly.

This year, formal assessments have been especially difficult to administer. When administered remotely, the validity of their results has been put into question. This article briefly looks at the various assessment tools at the disposal of classroom teachers and building and district leaders. When making plans for next fall, these tools can help you design a streamlined assessment system that optimizes useful information about student learning.

Firstly, this article covers assessments generally used to understand student learning across classrooms and schools in a district. Secondly, we look specifically at assessments that can help strengthen Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and Response to Intervention (RtI) initiatives in schools.

Assessments to Understand Student Learning

Informal Formative Assessments

Timing: Ongoing
Audience: Teachers and students
Purposes: Formative assessment
Examples: Quizzes, exit tickets, work samples and other small informal assessments

Description: Informal formative assessment is the ongoing collection of information about student learning. This information guides instructional decision making, planning, and feedback. Formative assessment techniques range from informal exit tickets to observations and student self-evaluations.

Pros: These assessments are used to help teachers understand student learning, adjust instruction, and share timely feedback with students.

Cons: Although the core tool to understand student learning and inform teachers’ formative practices, these results are generally invisible outside an individual classroom and unavailable to support collaborative work.

Classroom Assessments (Curriculum Embedded Assessments)

Timing: Ongoing
Audience: Teachers, specialists, building leaders, students, and parents
Purpose: Measure student learning for grades, reporting out to students and parents, and to inform teachers’ formative assessment practices
Examples: Unit assessments and quizzes directly embedded in curricular programs or developed by teachers to measure progress towards the goals of instruction

Description: Classroom assessments directly measure the response to general classroom instruction. Teachers record these assessments in gradebooks or preserve them in portfolios. As they are a key component of grades, classroom assessments are central to discussions of standards-based grading, competency-based education, and equity.

Pros: These assessments are direct measures of the effectiveness of instruction. They provide important information for formative assessment and are used to share feedback with students, including grades. Curriculum embedded assessments also help teachers identify students that may be in need of additional supports, or who could benefit from extensions and enrichment activities.

Cons: How these assessments are administered and scored can vary classroom to classroom, meaning these results can be a less reliable indicator of student performance at the site and district level. Without tools and protocols in place to collect results, it can be difficult to aggregate results across grades to inform school improvement and professional learning initiatives.

Interim and Benchmark Assessments

Timing: 2 to 6 times a year
Audience: Teachers, district and building leadership, and parents
Purposes: Monitor overall growth and performance relative to grade level standards, predict state assessment results
Examples:  NWEA MAP, FastBridge, DIBELS, Fontas and Pinnell BAS, Star Assessment, iReady, and district-created common assessments

Description: Interim assessments are general assessments of content that happen periodically throughout the year to provide insights into student growth and performance, as well as help determine if students are “on track” to meet grade level expectations on state assessments. Typically these are digital, computer scored assessments.

Pros: These periodic district-wide assessments can provide insights into general growth and performance of students. They may also be used to determine additional allocation of resources, such as instructional coaches, to assist with areas of struggle. Printable parent reports can be helpful for conferences and student support meetings.

Cons: Interim assessments consume both significant time and resources. As these assessments are not directly linked to curricular programs, results are difficult to transform into instructional responses. Since they have a broad scope, providing a few questions across each of a large spectrum of topics, these assessments do not provide precise enough information for RtI and other initiatives, and an additional, complementary layer of diagnostic testing is still necessary to guide instruction. When results are used for teacher effectiveness reviews, teachers are incentivized to teach to the test.

State Standardized Tests

Timing: Spring
Audience: District and building leadership, teachers, parents and community members
Purposes: Monitor school performance
Examples: PARCC, S-BAC,OAKS, CSAP, PSSA, and many more

Description: Given their ubiquitous use, statewide standardized tests need little introduction.  They range from all digital assessments to paper assessments that are partially scanned and partially human scored.

Pros: These are used for outside accountability and to report to the public on student performance. They provide an aggregate view of student performance and disaggregated performance by demographic group. School and district leaders may use these test results to monitor student performance and guide planning and practice.

Cons: Although an additional source of data used by district and building leadership, results are not timely enough to translate into school improvement efforts. The administration of these tests can also consume a lot of instructional time and pressure teachers to “teach to the test”, including test taking strategies that do not support student learning.


Assessments to Support MTSS and RtI Efforts

The assessments in the section below are also assessments to understand student learning, but specific to efforts to identify students that may not be ready for grade-level content. These assessments help identify specific areas of struggle and monitor instructional responses in intervention or small group work with students.

Universal Screening Assessments*

Timing: 1 – 3 times/year
Audience: Teachers, interventionists and specialists, instructional coaches, building and district leaders
Purposes: Identify students potentially in need of additional supports and reveal school and class-wide trends
Examples: NWEA MAP, FastBridge, DIBELS, Fontas and Pinnell BAS, Star Assessment, Universal Screeners for Number Sense

Description: Screeners are quick assessments that help to identify skills and concepts that indicate readiness for grade level content. They also help identify students who would benefit from additional supports.

Pros: Universal screening can reveal readiness for instruction that might otherwise go unnoticed. They can help teachers respond to student needs through individual targeted instruction, small group, and whole group instruction. Data from universal screeners can also help to monitor the efficacy of core instructional materials, identify pockets of need where additional resources should be directed, and monitor progress on key indicators over time. They may also direct teachers to areas where diagnostic assessments would be helpful.

Cons: These assessments are not always directly aligned to the instructional programs, so the timing of topics assessed can be problematic. Depending on the type of assessment used, the level of detail varies widely. Details about specific skills and concepts that students struggle with can be helpful for teachers to develop plans for targeted instruction. Universal screeners that only identify students who are at risk of struggling are less useful.

Diagnostic Assessments

Timing: Often a follow up to screening assessments, these are administered as needed in response to student need
Audience: Teachers, instructional specialists, special education teachers, and parents
Purposes: Identify strengths and areas for growth for a student, conduct root cause analysis, and determine starting points for targeted instruction
Examples: Fontus and Pinnel BAS Word Analysis, DIBELS, Add+Vantage Math, Math Recovery Assessments, Math Reasoning Inventory, Key Math

Description: Diagnostic assessments are commonly one-on-one assessments. Many are interview style assessments that are designed to help determine a specific level of instruction or identify root causes of issues of struggle.

Pros: Diagnostic assessments have the potential for pinpointing specific areas of struggle for a student in order to plan and implement targeted instruction. Depending on the design of the assessment, they can help to understand a student’s progress along developmental trajectories, and therefore help to inform next instructional steps.

Cons: Diagnostic assessments can be time consuming. They are impractical for use except in the cases where they are most needed. They generally require special training in order to be administered and scored reliably.

Progress Monitoring Assessments

Timing: Daily to 2xs per month for students receiving targeted instruction for interventions
Audience: Teachers, instructional specialists, special education teachers, and parents
Purposes: Determine the effectiveness of targeted instruction
Examples: A wide variety of informal to formal assessments

Description: Progress monitoring refers to the systematic assessment of learning as it relates to a specific goal for instruction. These generally take the form of short probes or a body of evidence including student work samples, teacher notes, and more formal assessment results (CoMMIT).

Pros: When assessments align well with the goals of interventions both in terms of content and learning model, progress monitoring assessments are a powerful tool to inform daily instruction, planning, and programming. Progress monitoring assessments, ideally, work hand-in-hand with diagnostic assessments. In this way, they inform instruction and help teachers determine if the intervention is effective.

Cons: Some of the progress monitoring probes on the market have a history that goes back nearly 50 years, which means that some apply methodologies that are not aligned with current best pedagogical practices. As there is a lot of variability in these tools and products, the adoption team in your school or district will need to verify that the selected tools align well with the goals of the intervention. An example of this disconnect follows at the end of this article in the section entitled postscript.



Districts use a wide variety of assessment tools, often times with overlapping purposes and scope. When designing assessment systems, balance the needs of your various stakeholders to develop a system that provides leaders, teachers, parents, and students with the information that they need to understand and support student learning.

Ultimately, teachers most need assessment results to understand and impact student learning. Empower them with the time and resources they need to have quality assessment results directly linked to classroom instruction for their day-to-day practice. Additionally, provide them with tools to help identify students’ readiness for grade-level content. When these assessments are in place, leaders can provide teachers with the reporting and data tools that allow them to share these results with colleagues, promoting collaborative work. Reporting tools can also be used to share information with parents, improving engagement and communication. Lastly, these reporting tools can help leaders understand the general growth and performance of students across schools.

More than at any other time, the pandemic has forced schools to scale back efforts and focus on the essentials. This applies to assessment systems too. Are some of your assessment tools overlapping with the purposes of others? If so, eliminate them. This will reduce redundancy and focus teacher efforts and attention. When teachers have fewer datasets to talk about, conversations can go deeper. When it comes to assessments and the information they provide, sometimes less is more.

*Some assessment systems you will see listed as both interim and as screener assessments. The distinction is that screeners give precise information about the fundamental skills necessary for success and should help quickly identify specific areas for further diagnostic assessment.

Additional notes about progress monitoring probes: An example of popular progress monitoring probes that do not align with best pedagogical practices are fluency probes. These determine the growth of a student by counting correct answers in a period of time. The correlations of speed and accuracy with basic computation, reading, and letter naming have been demonstrated. Nonetheless, this relationship is not helpful for designing instruction. The result has been that interventionists set goals for speed and accuracy. Consequently, they teach for speed and accuracy rather than teaching for cognitive development. The result has been an increase in the use of timed tests, drills, and the memorization of tricks. As a result, pedagogical practices that have demonstrated to be effective over the past 20 years are ignored (NCTM: Taking Action). Even more importantly, students continue to struggle with developing the comprehension and cognitive abilities necessary for engaging with general classroom instruction.

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Webinar: Screeners in an RtI/MTSS System

Watch how number sense screening can strengthen your RtI/MTSS system with David Woodward, lead author of the Universal Screeners for Number Sense project. Access the webinar presented on February 23, 2022, at 12:30 pm EST below.

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