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Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs Always wrong to the light,[...]
[Robert Frost]

What is Assessment?

Definition ~ Paradigms ~ Purpose


A test is a mode of measurement, or may be thought of  “as any standardized procedure for eliciting the kind of behavior we want to observe and measure” (Frederiksen, 1984). Measurement is the assigning of numbers to the test results. The measurement data are used to make inferences about student achievement, relating the scores to the purpose of the test. The assessment lies in the interpretation of the inferences, combined with informal observations, to make an evaluative statement, in other words, a value judgment about a student's learning. Assessment is often used as a general term for a variety of procedures use to obtain information about student performance, including traditional paper-and-pencil tests and alternative approaches involving constructed response items, which are introduced in the How to Assess section.

Traditional assessments rely on “paper-and-pencil” or “on-demand” tests that are composed primarily of objective, selected-response items. Alternative assessment is a basic term that can be generally defined as any alternative to traditional assessment; “alternative forms of assessment give greater emphasis to the quality of answer content and process in interpreting results of assessment tasks” (Harnisch & Mabry, 1993). Alternative assessments are inherently more personalized assessments. Alternative assessment methods blend well with learner-centered pedagogies, such as inquiry-based.  Some specific definitions of types of alternative assessments:

  • Authentic assessment: when test problems resemble the kinds of tasks undertaken by professionals, that is, when test questions are authentic to real-world contexts. Often, authentic assessment is embedded within the curriculum (Wiggins, 1989, 1990, 1993; Shepard, 1991; Darling-Hammond et al. 1995; Mabry, 1999).
  • Direct assessment: when test-takers are asked to demonstrate the skill of interest.
  • Performance assessment: when test-takers are asked to perform or demonstrate skills either by doing something that is observed and evaluated as it occurs or by doing something that results in a tangible product that can be evaluated.

What these over-arching terms have in common is the requirement for constructed-response rather than selected-response items. There are a variety of types of constructed responses that have the benefits of allowing the learner the opportunity to show what they know and possibly pursue in-depth a topic of interest to the learner, and they will be discussed more in depth in the How to Assess section.


Paradigms - How are assessment practices judged as appropriate?

Psychometrics involves the measurement of intelligence, aptitude, and achievement.  The primary method for this kind of measurement is the standardized multiple-choice test. In the psychometric paradigm, the basic strategy for understanding student achievement is comparison.  A student's performance is compared either to a predetermined standard for to the performances of other test takers.  In a norm-referenced test, a student's performance is typically quantified as a score and compared with the scores of others presumed to be his/her peers.  Scores are ranked ordered.  A student's achievement is determined by his/her rank. In a criterion-referenced test, a student's performance is compared to a predetermined criterion or standard. criteria and standards tend to be set according to judgment of typical or satisfactory performance, which blurs the distinction between the two aforementioned types of tests.  Therefore in the psychometric paradigm, assessments are based on "on-demand" tests often containing selected response items, such as multiple-choice, and standardized content, format, and administration.

Within an inquiry classroom assessment within this paradigm may take the shape of an "add-on". In other words, after an inquiry activity students may feel that their new knowledge is not valued when the assessment of their achievement takes the shape of a test that based on textbook rote information that only utilizes lower-order thinking skills

More appropriately, educators in an inquiry classroom should assess based on what curricula students have experienced and take into account students' unequal learning opportunities. Contextualized assessments are designed to reveal what students have actually learned through opportunities for students to demonstrate and to reflect on their complex knowledge and skills. In addition, inquiry activities often take on the individual impulses of the learners. A personalized approach to assessing student achievement better aligned with constructivist learning theory and individualized education because it assumes that everyone -

- understands the same things in different ways;
- holds different interests and goals;
- responds in different ways, for example, some are better at oral than at written expression;
- thinks at their own rate, so some people need more time to think things through (or need other differences in conditions) than others.

Therefore, tests should -

 - have personalized content;
- assess achievements that will reveal students' readiness to accomplish their own goals;
- allow students to perform in ways that afford them the best chance to show what they know;
- allow different conditions and amounts of time so test-takers can demonstrate what they know.

In short, human beings are different and construct their own understandings. Inquiry learning and other learner-centered pedagogies embrace this constructivist philosophy and personalized assessment follows.


Purpose - What is the purpose of assessment?

Assessment purpose can be explained in terms of its functional role in the classroom. Some categories of assessment purpose in the order that they are likely to be used are as follows:

  1. Placement assessment: To determine student performance at the beginning of instruction.
  2. Formative assessment: To monitor learning progressed during instruction.
  3. Diagnostic assessment: To diagnose learning difficulties during instruction.
  4. Summative assessment: To assess achievements at the end of instruction.

The purpose of assessment ideally is to provide feedback about what knowledge and abilities students possess, in order to make appropriate instructional decisions and improve student learning. It attempts to answer to questions: "how are we doing?" and "how can we do it better?"  The purpose of the assessment is more broad than a test of content knowledge, which traditionally link to the teacher's instructional objectives.


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Last updated 5/02/02.
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