Educator and scholar Rick DuFour once defined the core mission of education as ensuring that students learn, rather than merely being taught. This raises the questions of what students should learn and how to determine whether they have learned it. State standardized tests and similar assessments help answer these questions by assessing student learning. Since the 1980s, assessment of learning has been a key element in educational accountability.
Assessment of learning, also known as summative assessment, is designed to measure student achievement and gauge what they have learned. Federal and state education laws, aimed at strengthening educational accountability, often require such assessments as measures of how well schools and their students perform academically. Guided by state and federal standards, school systems determine what knowledge and skills students should acquire and align school curriculum to instruments designed to assess the extent to which students have learned.
Because education policy-makers use assessments of learning as a kind of report card by which to grade the performance of individual campuses and entire school systems, educators and students receive enormous pressure to perform well on these tests. The federal No Child Left Behind law, passed in 2001, mandates school improvement requirements for campuses and school systems that fall short of state performance standards.
State standardized tests in reading/language arts, mathematics, science and social studies are the most common types of summative assessments. Other examples include the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), which many colleges and universities require for admission. The SAT measures verbal and mathematical skills. School- and classroom-based final exams in specific subjects are other examples of assessments of learning, because they measure how well students learned the course material.
Assessment of learning grew in prominence in American education in the 1980s, following the publication of "A Nation at Risk," a federal report which warned of "a rising tide of mediocrity" in American schools. This report set off a wave of education reforms that included a new emphasis on school accountability, as measured by standardized assessments. Key states in this reform movement included Texas, South Carolina and Arkansas.
Because of the high stakes associated with standardized testing, many people may regard all tests as assessments of learning. However, there is another class of assessment, known as formative. Formative tests are assessments for learning, rather than assessments of learning. Formative assessments are designed to measure student progress in learning, and can help guide classroom instruction by identifying strengths and weaknesses in student knowledge. These assessments also can identify students who need additional academic help. Examples of assessments for learning include benchmark assessments, which some school systems administer during the course of a school year to gauge student progress in reaching learning objectives.