The Difference Between Assessment and Testing

By Scott Sterling

Testing is one of the most contentious issues 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 many of us could do without is testing.

SO WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Remember learning multiplication tables in elementary school? The brain can be quickly trained to increase its short-term memory capacity and speed. With enough practice in a relatively short period, students became proficient in recalling previously unknown information and performing well on a test.

But is there a job in the world that solely requires reciting multiplication products? Using them, of course. Reciting them, no. You may not even be as good at multiplication now as you were back then, but learning those math facts was part of the overall capacity that you have today.

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

Testing, particularly of the high-stakes variety, generally isn’t 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.

This is why it’s critical to 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 testing falls 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? High-stakes tests may yield some meaningful data that educators 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?

A test designed with the brain in mind 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)

What’s possible (and what’s not)

Is it possible to conduct brain-friendly assessment in a short period? Perhaps, but if brain-friendly tests are to be used in high-stakes evaluation, it will take a major restructuring of the educational infrastructure. For example, state education departments would need to be prepared for the intake of things like portfolios rather than bubble sheets.

What can be done is that teachers can change how they assess. With the right combination of coaching and professional development, each teacher can become skilled at conducting accurate minute-to-minute assessment that leads to successful testing, higher student achievement, and greater college and career readiness.


Want to learn directly from some of the world’s top formative assessment authorities? Join us this summer for the Dylan Wiliam Center Formative Assessment National Conference.


We believe that the most important thing a teacher or leader can do is to fuel each student’s passion for learning. When this is achieved, a lifetime of accomplishment becomes possible for that learner. Through partnerships with schools and districts throughout the country, we help educators and leadership transform each classroom into a powerful learning environment that prepares students for lasting success in school, the global workplace, and beyond. Our vision for the future is big and bright, and we love helping schools get there. Learn more about Learning Sciences International.

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