Formal and Informal Assessments

Assessments, as students we hated them, the late nights studying, the pressure, the anticipation of our score. However, as teachers we love them. How can we not? After all, assessments are a teacher’s best friend; a highly invaluable resource by which to follow and measure the progress of our students. A highly invaluable resource which comes in many shapes and forms, a resource we can twist and shape to fit our needs, the schools needs, local, state and government education board’s needs, and most importantly our students needs. After all, assessments allow teachers to individualize instruction and lessons specifically for needs. There are however, some decisions to make regarding the type of assessment to be given. There are many forms of assessments, yet two are under scrutiny here: informal and formal assessments. Is one better than the other? What purposes do each serve? How are informal and formal assessments implemented, and how to they aid both teachers and students?

Formal assessments are the conventional method of testing that we are all very familiar with from our school days. Tests such as the SAT9 and their other aptitude measuring counterparts are classified as formal assessments. These tests are generally used to assess overall achievement, compare a student’s performance to their peers, or find a student’s strengths and weaknesses. (Weaver, 2006).

Formal assessments are further broken down into separate groups; norm referenced tests, and criterion referenced tests, each carrying their own purposes, advantages and disadvantages.

Norm referenced tests have strict rules in their implementation. Since these tests are used as comparisons between one student and another or one group of students and another group, schools must implement these tests under specific and similar circumstances in each instance of test taking. The advantage of this is that students, parents, and teachers have the advantage of knowing how each student compares to their peers (i.e. students their own age, gender, or grade level). (Norm-referenced evaluation, N.d.). This can give all those involved a good look at what needs to be re-taught, relearned, or reviewed, as well as showing what lessons and instruction was most effective throughout the learning term.

Another advantage of norm referenced tests is that, although they are so highly specific in implementation that they are easily administered. All the materials are ready, all the materials are the same, and since each time taking the test must also be the same, there is little to worry about. Students and teachers alike know what to expect from the test and just how the test will be conducted and graded. Likewise, each and every school will conduct the exam in the same manner reducing such inaccuracies as time differences or environmental differences that may cause distractions to the students. This also makes these assessments fairly accurate as far as results are concerned, a major advantage for a test. (Technique: Norm-referenced Standardized Tests, N.d.)

Yet to every advantage there are disadvantages, and norm referenced tests are no different. These tests, like any other also have distinct disadvantages; that is besides the fact that students dislike them. One specific disadvantage is the heavy reliance on multiple choice questions. If you can remember back to your standardized tests days you’ll recall that many, if not all of the questions were multiple choice questions. (Norm-referenced evaluation, N.d.). This makes it easy on the grader as they can use a machine, but it creates a disadvantage as far as assessment goes. The student is never challenged to come up with the answer themselves. They are never charged with specifically remembering the details. As such, the assessment only measures a broad base of understanding and cannot assess the depth of a student’s knowledge.

Moreover, these sorts of standards based assessments measure the level that students are currently by measuring against where their peers are currently at instead of the level that both students should be at. (Norm-referenced evaluation, N.d.). Ideally, teachers should measure students from the standpoint of ‘this is where the student needs to be, and this is where the student is.’ However, norm referenced assessments miss that point and only show students and teachers how the student compares to other students. Although this is helpful in measuring a student, it isn’t enough to fully comprehend the student’s level of achievement. It isn’t enough to fully measure what the child has learned and what they need to learn in order to reach those essential standards mapped out for each grade level. With such a disadvantage as this it can only measure whether a child is ahead of or behind his peers in his area of testing.

The second form of formal assessments mentioned, criterion referenced tests, help to make up for this blank left by norm referenced tests. Criterion referenced tests measure a child’s performance and compare it to a standard, instead of another student. (Formal Assessments Handout and RICA Domains Study Grid, N.d.). Essentially, these tests are able to actually track or measure a students mastery of a specific skill, which is ideal for things such areas as grammar, mathematics, and the like.

The aforementioned leads us to our first advantage. Since a criterion referenced test is able to measure skills with such meticulousness it is able to easily and very clearly identify a students area of mastery. As one skill is tested against a standard, the student is measured against that standard and given an appropriate score. There is no grey line by which to fuzz up the results. The teacher and student are left with a very succinct picture of whether the student has or has not mastered the desired skill.

Furthermore, criterion referenced tests provide students with very little ambiguity as far as what they are being tested on. As such, the evaluation of these tests is very fair; a complaint students often like to make concerning tests. Students are made aware of the topics, subjects, or areas they are being tested on beforehand and are, or should be, fully prepared for the exam. The teacher has without a doubt covered the material on the test, unlike other standardized exams which cover a broad range of materials that occasionally have not been taught in a particular classroom. With a criterion referenced test the students are sure each be provided with the same advantages as the other as they have all learned the same materials together.
However, these sorts of tests are some of the most stressful tests that a student can take. Students find criterion referenced tests as some of the most threatening tests. (Technique: Objective-referenced/Criterion-referenced/Performance Tests, N.d.) Clearly, the tests put students right out in the open where a failure or low performance can be more readily chastised. Failing such a test as this can lead to the failing of a grade level or the repetition of an entire concept. With such high stakes it is no wonder that students feel so threatened by taking these sorts of exams. It raises the question of how to deal with students who deal with pressure poorly as they are more likely to choke on an exam of this level than a more casual exam.
Likewise, these sorts of tests are developmentally time consuming. (Technique: Objective-referenced/Criterion-referenced/Performance Tests, N.d.). Since a specific area must be tested the test must also be made highly specific. It can take a great deal of time to determine and map out the types of questions, and the most appropriate questions to measure a student’s mastery. As such, it can take a great deal of time before a test is updated or changed and new students can end up taking the same tests their predecessors took.

With all that said, formal assessments aren’t the only assessments available. The second form of assessments are called Informal assessments and make up another area of testing that helps teachers to catalogue immediate results from their students. Instead of being driven by data, informal assessments are centered on content and performance. (Weaver, 2006). Since informal assessments make up such a broad and open ended range of assessments there are a great number of different possibilities for assessments that fall under this category. Four will be discussed.

As informal assessments aid the teacher by providing quick answers as to the level of learning and understanding attained by the students writing samples are the first of the informal assessments that will be examined.

Writing samples are of advantage due to the fact that they are a good judge of the application of techniques learned in the classroom. (Navarete, et al, 1990). A very structured assessment makes it hard to judge how well a student can apply the information or grammar they have learned. Instead, a writing sample allows students to write more practically and naturally, and thus allows the teacher to assess how much the student has grasped and is able to use comfortably. Additionally, a writing sample has the advantage of assessing a number of different concepts. Instead of assessing only one concept, a writing sample can provide outlook on a number of different topics both current and retrospective. In essence it assesses current knowledge along with previously learned in an effort to test the students on their overall progress and not simply the progress of the current lesson.

In contrast, writing samples have time constraints that can limit what a student is able to accomplish. Some student write well in short amounts of time, however, others have trouble pulling together all their thoughts and writing a well thought out composition. This can affect their score on both their paper and the assessment. Moreover, this form of assessment prevents constraints in what focuses can be tested. Although it can easily test grammar application, it is nearly impossible to comprehensively judge a students learning and understanding on a history lesson, for example. Since there are too many aspects of the history lesson to be taken into account, this is purely not an option for overall testing by a writing sample.
Another form of informal assessment is homework. Yes, as strange as it sounds, homework is a fantastic form of assessment. One reason can be attributed to its timely gathering of information as to the students understanding of a lesson. Since the lesson is given the same day as the homework the concepts are not only reviewed, but assessed by doing homework. Furthermore, this type of assessment isn’t at all as time consuming as other forms. It is easily created and implemented, and can be as easy to grade as handing it back to the students and reviewing the answers in class.
Unfortunately, the flaw in this form of assessment falls in the unreliability of students. The teacher is merely relying on the fact that all students should do their homework and not the reality that not all students do their homework. If students fail to complete their homework they fail to complete their assessment and it thus becomes null and meaningless. Another point that would make this assessment form void is the student’s use of books and other forms of aid to help them with their homework. Having the students use help to complete the work defeats the point of the assessment as the knowledge is no longer coming from what they remember, but from what they gather from their books. If a teacher is to make homework a successful assessment they will have to overcome both of these points.

Debates are another form of informal assessment teachers can utilize as part of their assessment repertoire. Debates are able to assess oral skills in a way that other forms of assessment miss. Written assessments can hardly test a student’s spoken ability, yet a debate is a perfect way for the teacher to see first hand the kind of progress and achievement a student is making orally. Additionally it provides the teacher a means of seeing how comfortable the student is with speaking. Another advantage is that debates require a great deal of organization and understanding of the materials at hand. By holding a debate a teacher assess a student on the skills they’ve used to organize their information, and how well they understand that information and make it into a complete and convincing piece of work.

However, for as great as debates are, the grading is tough on the teacher. There is no written context for a teacher to follow. It can be rather straining to follow and accurately judge all the point necessary at once. Since the teacher can only listen to the debate once, it becomes difficult draw a truly complete conclusion about each student’s performance. Additionally, debates cover only the oral aspect of a student’s progress and cannot cover the entire context of a lesson or concept unless, of course, that lesson is persuasive speech.

The last form of informal assessments to be discussed are experiments. Experiments can provide a means of shaking up the normal classroom routine and gives students a chance to move around and become part of the lesson. But more than that, experiments can actually provide teachers with insight into how much the student has learned. Experiments allow students a chance to apply, in a very hands on and practical way, what they have learned. If a students experiment is successful after a thorough lesson on the concept, it shows that the student has grasped the concept being taught. Additionally, experiments are extremely easy to measure as far as achievement goes. An experiment is very clean cut and a teacher knows what to expect as results. Moreover, with lab notes a teacher can easy determine what went wrong and which parts of the lesson the student didn’t understand. Appropriate parts of the lesson can either be re-taught to the class, or corrected in the lab notes so that students have a chance to see how they should have conducted the experiment. Another method of correction can include conducting the same experiment in front of the class; they can take notes and participate for added learning.

However, despite these upsides, experiments also have disadvantages as a form of assessment. For one, conducting experiments in any class, not just a science class, can be expensive as they require a great number of materials. Secondly, experiments can take a great deal of time to conduct. Sometimes a lab can take the entire class period, or even longer! This makes it hard on teachers as enough time has to be set aside for the implementation of the assessment.
Overall, every assessment whether formal or informal has advantages or disadvantages. No assessment is perfect. Additionally, informal and formal assessments, in their various forms, are best when used in conjunction. No one form can provide all the information a teacher needs. Yet, when using both teachers and students can receive the greatest benefit. These assessments combined can provide teachers with the insight they need to pinpoint areas of mastery and areas that need additional help while also providing students with data as to their achievements, and the kind of help they need to meet the standards laid out by local and government education boards. Assessments are key to education, without them both teachers and students suffer greatly.


Navarete, C., et al (1990). INFORMAL ASSESSMENT IN EDUCATIONAL EVALUATION: IMPLICATIONS FOR BILINGUAL EDUCATION PROGRAMS. Retrieved August 6, 2006, from NCBE Program Information Guide Series, Number 3, Summer 1990 Web site:

(N.d.). Formal Assessment Handout and RICA Domains Study Grid. Retrieved August 6, 2006, from Formal Assessment Handout and RICA Domains Study Grid Web site:

(N.d). Norm-referenced evaluation. Retrieved August 7, 2006, from Norm-referenced evaluation Web site:

(N.d.). Technique: Norm-referenced (standardized) Tests. Retrieved August 7, 2006, from Penn State Web site:

(N.d.). Technique: Objective-referenced/Criterion-referenced/Performance Tests. Retrieved August 7, 2006, from Penn State Web site:

Shellard, E (2003). Using Assessment to Promote Reading Instruction. Principal 83 no 2 N/D 2003, Retrieved August 7, 2006, from

Weaver, B (2006). Formal Versus Informal Assessments. Retrieved August 6, 2006, from Scholastic Web site:

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