4 Common Types of Tests Teachers Give (and Why)

Amy Reilly is a proud mom of three, former teacher, and an assessment expert at Pearson. She specializes in finding new ways to measure what students know and can do – and translating that data into actionable and interpretable information for students, parents, and teachers.

As a former teacher and self-proclaimed assessment nerd, the word “testing” can raise my heart rate.

It immediately brings to mind passing or failing, when what we’re really trying to do as educators is learn—learn what students know so we can celebrate that while also learning where they need extra support.

While some tests are, in fact, pass/fail, many others provide various types of results based on their purpose or goal.

Regardless of their objective, all tests are measurement tools.

As parents, when we hear the word “testing,” we think to ourselves this is that time of year when under no circumstances can I allow my child to not get a good night’s sleep and a healthy breakfast.

The pressure is real; I feel it with my own kids.

We often imagine testing to be what happens at the end of the year when students are faced with bubble sheets and forced to sit quietly until their class finishes.

But in reality, measuring students occurs throughout the year, both formally and informally, for different purposes, audiences, and uses of the information they provide.

As parents, it is helpful to understand these different types of assessments as we engage in discussions with both our children and their teachers.

This is particularly true when trying to make decisions on how to best support our children in their learning, which can be challenging when the assessments may vary in terms of the scores they provide, their timing, and their relevance.

Different Types of Measurement

There are four common types of testing in schools today—diagnostic, formative, benchmark (or interim), and summative.

They all serve distinct purposes and should work together in order to make up a comprehensive or balanced assessment program.

1. Diagnostic Testing

This testing is used to “diagnose” what skills a student has demonstrated proficiency on. Diagnostic testing often measures for student misconceptions or where students are in stages along a progression, such as by grade level, of concepts, or skills. For example, diagnostic reading assessments can measure what grade level students are fluent at reading, or based on their comprehension of the text.

Teachers use diagnostic testing information to guide what and how they teach. They’ll spend more time teaching skills students struggled with most on the diagnostic test.

Diagnostic assessments can be a very helpful tool for parents. The feedback my kids receive on these tests lets me know the specific areas where they  may need extra help at home.

2. Formative Assessments

Formative assessment is often viewed as more of a natural part of the teaching and learning process. It can include strategies such as observations, having students read out loud, and asking students questions in class, as well as the use of different types of tools, like digital games.

This type of testing is used to gauge student learning during the lesson. Often, teachers are evaluating student learning without even knowing it. It is informal and low-stakes, meaning that the kind of decisions that are made from these types of assessments should be limited to informing and adjusting instructional practices, such as reteaching a lesson or grouping students for extra help. They are designed to give students the opportunity to demonstrate they understand the material.

Schools normally do not send home formal reports on formative testing, but it is an important part of the teaching and learning process. If you help your children with their homework, you are likely using a version of formative testing as you work together.

3. Benchmark or Interim Testing

This testing is used throughout the school year often to check whether students have mastered a unit of instruction. There are other types of benchmark assessments that mirror the state summative test as a way to view progress and see if students are on track.

When designed for this particular use, benchmark or interim tests may even provide a predictor of how students may perform on the end of year summative test.  These tests are typically longer than formative assessments and are often used for a grade.

Unlike diagnostic testing, students are expected to have mastered material on benchmark tests. Parents will often receive feedback from these tests, which is important to me as a parent, as it gives me insight into which concepts my kids did not master. If I want to further review a concept with them, I can find lessons, videos, or games online, or ask their teachers for resources.

4. Summative Assessments

Summative assessments are used as a checkpoint at the end of the year or course to assess how much content students learned overall.

These tests are given to all students in a classroom, school, or state, so everyone has an equal opportunity to demonstrate what they know. Students demonstrate their ability to perform at the level prescribed as the proficiency standard for the test. Results are often aggregated to also understand school and district performance for the purpose of accountability.

In my opinion, the most important function of summative assessments is student equity. It’s our way of making sure that populations of students are not being left behind. In order to do so, we need to evaluate not just the total population of students but a breakdown by subgroup so we can identify any potential underserved populations of students and put interventions in place for their success.

Since summative tests cover the full range of concepts for a given grade level, they are not able to assess any one concept deeply. As a parent, I consider summative testing a confirmation of what I should already know about my sons’ performance. I don’t expect to be surprised by the results, given the feedback I have received from diagnostic, formative, and benchmark testing.

The current lingo leans more toward “equity” rather than civil rights. Would you consider that verbiage?

Combining Test Results

We need a balance of the four different types of testing in order to gain a holistic view of our children’s academic performance. What testing offers me, as a parent, is an understanding of how my children are doing academically. Test results are a way for me to have eyes on my kids’ classrooms even though I am not there. This information guides what we focus on when we do homework at the kitchen table.

Understanding the different types of testing, the kinds of results they provide, and how they complement one another can help parents help their children learn.

Hopefully, the next time parents hear the word “testing,” they won’t just think of summative testing. Instead, they’ll think of all four types and the value of each in realizing a richer, more thorough understanding of their child’s progress.