The Difference Between Assessment and Testing

Is this truly brain-friendly? Can it be?

By Scott Sterling

Testing is the most contentious issue in education today, often creating a wedge between factions of the educational structure, crossing political and social lines. As educators, we know that assessment helps us do our jobs efficiently; what we could do without is testing.

Dr. David A. Sousa, in his book Brain-Friendly Assessments: What They Are and How to Use Them, puts it this way: testing is an event; assessment is a process.

Testing, particularly of the high-stakes variety, is not generally designed with the brain in mind. Tests can’t measure long-term retention, synthesis, and knowledge utilization. In this country, testing is more like the quality assurance process a factory might use—which is interesting when you consider that the roots of our educational structure were planted during the Industrial Revolution.

There are many forms of assessment. Some are long-term, like projects, performances, and products. Some are instantaneous, like a well-timed question during a conversation. Done correctly, assessment can serve as a window into each student’s brain, showing you how it works and whether it is ready for something new.

But the purpose of this post isn’t to indict the current state of testing in this country. It’s to draw a line in the sand and help teachers understand that what happens in the classroom doesn’t necessarily guarantee what will happen in the testing room. In fact, for maximum effectiveness, it shouldn’t.

Where does testing fall short?

Why do we assume that a test that only takes a few hours can determine what a brain has learned over the course of months? If a test is designed with the brain in mind, it accounts for:

  • How the brain acquires information, evaluates it for future use, and stores it for a later date
  • The various factors that affect the brain’s ability to learn, recall, and use knowledge
  • The brain’s ability to perform tasks using knowledge (not just accessing the knowledge at a certain time)


Anyone being evaluated feels the pressure component of high-stakes testing. Money, jobs, and possible student retention are on the line, but it also has a negative effect on the brain itself.

The brain can quickly be trained to increase its short-term memory capacity and speed. Remember learning multiplication tables? With enough practice in a relatively short period, you became proficient in recalling previously unknown information. But is there a job in the world that solely requires reciting multiplication products? Using them, of course. Reciting them, no. More importantly, are you as good at multiplication now as you were back then? Probably not. 

What’s possible (and what’s not)

Brain-friendly assessment may be possible in a short period, but not with any current technology or pedagogy. If brain-friendly tests are to be used in high-stakes evaluation, it may take a major restructuring of the educational infrastructure. State education departments simply are not prepared for the intake of portfolios, for example, rather than bubble sheets—and may never be.

High-stakes tests may yield some meaningful data that educators around the country can use to improve instruction, but how reliable is that data? How deeply does it measure the brain’s capabilities? How quickly can it increase student achievement?

What can be done is that teachers can change how they assess. Principles of brain-friendly assessment are always available. Teachers still have day-to-day control of their classrooms and lessons. Done correctly, accurate brain-friendly assessment can lead to more successful testing, higher student achievement, and greater college and career readiness.

In next week’s post, The Purposes of Assessing the Brain, we’ll continue with this series. To go on a much deeper dive into the world of neuroscience and assessment, order Dr. Sousa’s Brain-Friendly Assessments: What They Are and How to Use Them from the Learning Sciences International bookstore.