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Assessment and Differentiation
October 24, 2013 | Volume 9 | Issue 2
Table of Contents 

The Why, What, and When of Assessment

Carol Ann Tomlinson and Tonya R. Moon

Why Assess

Various experts use three different prepositions to suggest purposes of assessment. They distinguish between assessment of instruction, assessment for instruction, and assessment as instruction (Chappius, Stiggins, Chappius, & Arter, 2012; Earl, 2003).

Assessment of instruction is summative and is especially useful in determining the degree to which a student has mastered an extended body of content or set of KUDs at a concluding point in a sequence of learning. Summative assessments result in grades that should reveal that degree of mastery.

Assessment for instruction emphasizes a teacher's use of information derived from assessments to do instructional planning that can effectively and efficiently move students ahead from their current points of knowledge, understanding, and skill. Assessment for instruction can also be useful in understanding and addressing students' interests and approaches to learning. Assessment for learning should rarely be graded. Feedback that helps students clearly understand areas of proficiency and areas that need additional attention is generally more useful than grading because students are still practicing and refining competencies, and premature grading or judgment creates an environment that feels unsafe for students to engage in learning.

Assessment as instruction is targeted at ensuring that assessment becomes a key part of teaching and learning. Its aim is to help students compare their work on assessments to specified learning targets so they become more aware of their own growth relative to important learning targets (KUDs) and develop the skills necessary to enhance their own success with the content, and to help their peers do so as well.

What to Assess

Students vary in at least three ways that affect learning: readiness, interest, and learning profile. As we noted in Chapter 1, readiness has to do with a student's current proximity to current learning targets (KUDs); interest has to do with topics, ideas, or skills that attract a student, generate enthusiasm, or align with a student's passion; and learning profile relates to a preferred mode of learning or learning preference. Teachers can better focus their planning if they understand their students' differences in these areas; therefore, teachers should assess all three. Of the three, understanding student readiness calls for more persistent assessment and analysis of assessment information in order to plan curriculum and instruction that moves each student forward from his current point of entry.

When to Assess

Effective differentiation requires teachers to assess student status before a unit of study begins (pre-assessment), throughout the unit of study (formative or ongoing assessment), and at key ending or wrap-up points in a unit of study (summative assessment). Pre- or diagnostic assessment helps determine a student's starting point with learning targets (KUDs) as well as with prerequisite knowledge, understandings, and skills that are essential to continued progress in a content sequence. Pre-assessment is also useful in developing awareness about students' interests and learning preferences. Formative (ongoing) assessment lets teachers closely monitor a student's evolving knowledge, understanding, and skills—including any misunderstandings a student may have or develop about key content. As with diagnostic or pre-assessment, formative assessment also plays a role in revealing students' various interests and approaches to learning. Summative assessment evaluates a student's status with the learning targets or KUDs at designated endpoints or checkpoints in a unit of study—for example, at the end of a section of a unit, end of a marking period, end of a semester, midterm, and so on. Differentiation places particular emphasis on pre-assessment and formative assessment.

Assessment in an effectively differentiated classroom will be both informal and formal. Informal assessments include things like talking with students as they enter and leave the room, observing students as they work on a task or in groups, watching students on the playground or at lunch, asking students to use hand signals or colored cards to indicate their degree of confidence with a skill they have just practiced, or making note of informative comments made by parents at a back-to-school night. Informal assessments are useful in giving a teacher a sense of what makes a student tick, providing a big-picture look at how the class as a whole seems to be faring at a given moment, and amassing a growing sense of how specific students work in particular contexts. They are not as useful in revealing the status of each student in the class with regard to a particular learning target or set of learning targets. Formal assessments (which we discuss in greater detail later in the book) include things like surveys, quizzes, exit cards, Frayer diagrams, quick-writes, homework checks, purposeful note taking about students' proficiencies, interests, or learning approaches, and so on. Unlike informal assessments, formal assessments generally provide data from all students on a particular learning target or set of learning targets that a teacher can systematically study for purposes of instructional decision making—and that a student can examine relative to important learning goals.


Chappius, J., Stiggins, R., Chappius, S., & Arter, J. (2012). Assessment for learning: Doing it right, using it well (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Earl, L. (2003). Assessment as learning: Using classroom assessment to maximize student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Source: From Assessment and Student Success in a Differentiated Classroom (pp. 19–21), by C. A. Tomlinson and T. R. Moon, 2013, Alexandria, VA: ASCD. Copyright © 2013 ASCD. Adapted with permission.


ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 2. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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