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Beginners Guide: A Balanced Assessment System

Written by
November 3rd, 2016

balanced-assessment-scale

For many years, districts have focused on assessments to gauge student mastery of the curriculum.

But state assessment systems that revolve around once-a-year summative testing do not tell the entire student achievement story. There is not adequate data to improve educational outcomes and build school capacity.

Educators and students need assessment information to measure the effectiveness of teaching methods and inform the steps to continuous improvement. Having research-based assessments helps to prevent decisions based on incomplete or obsolete information.

That’s where a balanced assessment system comes into the picture. It’s a system of assessment tools, methodologies and data systems that provide data to inform key decision-makers on learning decisions.

What does a high-quality balanced assessment system look like? It should exhibit, but is not limited to, the following characteristics:

  • Conceptual fit with the district strategic plan, mission, vision and goals
  • Multiple levels of assessment data designed to provide data at each stage of the teaching and learning process
  • Provides relevant and actionable student performance data
  • Designed to meet the needs of key educational decision-makers such as teachers, administrators and parents
  • Maximizes the ability of the educational system to adjust and adapt to meet learning needs through collaboration and intervention implementation

Typically, the balanced assessment system would include formative, summative, and benchmark assessments that occur throughout the year. These measures provide information across the state, district, school, classroom and individual student levels of the educational system. Of course for being part of this educational system, you need to have the resources that are not always available that’s why sometimes you can apply for online title loans to get through your school.

The following graphic shows the basic framework of a basic balanced assessment system, and how various assessments might be administered during the school year:

balanced-assessment-system-chart

The term “benchmark” (or interim) assessments is used differently across the country and in the literature. They are often used as assessments that measure progress on larger units of a district’s curriculum (i.e., “quarterly benchmarks”), and they are typically administered several times per year (e.g., fall, winter, spring, quarterly).

Benchmark assessments have limitations as a “fixed-form” assessment so it’s difficult to match the assessment to student level. As a fairly brief, economical assessment, they can serve as a sort of diagnostic, but should allow schools to identify students in need of further diagnostic assessments and/or intervention. (Note, the information could become “dated” rather quickly due to on-going instruction.)

Formative assessments, also known as “short-cycle assessments,” are used to inform instruction and indicate to the teacher “what learning comes next” for the student. They overcome some of the fixed-form limitations and can yield rich diagnostic information while targeting specific areas of learning deficits (e.g., specific skills, knowledge, standards).

Some examples include: classroom assessments, observations, quizzes, unit exams, locally-developed standards-based assessments, comprehension checks, exit tickets.

Summative assessments are administered well after the material is taught and doesn’t generally affect the current, on-going instruction for students. It can often be used for grading students and to measure growth of students, while providing feedback as to how to improve future classroom instruction.

This type of data may suggest specific program treatment effect, effectiveness of instruction, or changes in areas like curriculum or instructional strategies. Some examples include: State NCLB assessments (NAEP, end of course/term tests, ACT, SAT, PLAN, EXPLORE, TIMSS).

Be very careful not to assume a single assessment can serve multiple purposes. Each assessment may serve a different need or inform a specific decision, depending on the level of the educational system. However, diagnostic, short-cycle formatives, progress monitoring, computer adaptive and universal screening assessments can overlap and could serve multiple purposes in an assessment system.

In turn, educators and policymakers can use all the aggregate data to decide on educational outcomes for students at each stage of the learning process.


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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