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Assessing Student Understanding Throughout the Instructional Cycle

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October 5th, 2017

In the past few years, there has been a lot of discussion around the amount of time that students spend taking assessments. Educators, politicians and parents are concerned that we are over-testing children in schools.

To me, the question that should be asked is not how much time is spent assessing students, but what is the purpose and structure of these assessments?

Historically, educators spent a significant amount of time assessing student learning. These assessments were frequently given as summative evaluations of students’ learning. They were a “final” test of what students had learned. Usually, there was little or nothing done to circle back once the test had been given. When the test was graded, a grade was given and teachers moved onto the next topic.

There has been a recent movement to spend time analyzing the data that educators are collecting. Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) work collaboratively to develop common formative and summative assessments for the purpose of evaluating student learning throughout a unit of study or over a period of time. They administer the assessments and take time to meet and discuss the results.

Ideally, the educators will do item analytics and figure out if there are problem areas for an individual student or groups of students. Some areas of focus may be question types, rigor level or standard mastery. Once there are areas identified, teachers will need to figure out how to respond to these areas of need. Students may attend individualized support sessions, small group interventions or teachers may be able to flexible group their students during a common work time to optimize their resources and allow for differentiation with their grade level counterparts.

Even though students “test into” a certain group, they should not remain in that group once they are able to master the content. How can teachers continuously re-evaluate their students? This should be done in an authentic manner and on a regular basis. Teachers don’t need to formally assess students to move them in and out of groups or challenge them with more difficult content.

While we traditionally have relied on formal, paper/pencil type assessments, teachers can use informal evaluation methods. These would include, but are not limited to, verbal questions to check for understanding, exit tickets, performance tasks, and individual white board responses. Once students seem to be progressing in their understanding of a topic or standard, they can be formally assessed and can move onto another topic and out of the intervention group.

Remember, regardless of the assessment method, it’s important to always go back to the essential question of the “why.” Figuring out the purpose behind all our testing will guide our evaluation and methodology, which in turn will provide the data we need to drive student progress and mastery.


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