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January 15, 2024

A Guide to Types of Assessment: Diagnostic, Formative, Interim, and Summative

Assessments come in many shapes and sizes. For those who are new to assessment or just starting out, the terms can be hard to sort out or simply unfamiliar. Knowing one type of assessment from another can be a helpful way to understand how best to use assessment to your advantage. In this guide to types of assessments, we will cover the different types of assessments you may come across: diagnostic, formative, interim, and summative.

Nature of Assessments

The multi-faceted nature of assessments means that educators can leverage them in a number of ways to provide valuable formal or informal structure to the learning process. The main thing to remember is that the assessment is a learning tool. What all assessments have in common is that they provide a snapshot of student understanding at a particular time in the learning process.

Reasonably so, when you were a K-12 student yourself, you may not have been aware of the variety of assessments that teachers leverage.  To the average student, or anyone who has ever been a student, the word ‘test’ has a pretty clear cut definition and it usually includes some level of anxiety and expectation about a final outcome.  But, to educators, tests – or assessments – are actually quite multi-faceted and have both formal and informal places throughout the learning process.

Different Types of Assessments

Assessments can run the gamut from start to finish when it comes to instruction. Think of it like a long distance race that has a start and finish line and many stations to refuel in between.  The race can be any instructional period of time, such as a unit, a quarter, or even the full year.  In this metaphor, the student is the runner and the teacher is the coach who is trying to help the student run the race as well as they possibly can.  Different assessments types, when utilized by the coach (teacher) in the right way, can help the runner (student) run the race better and more effectively.

Some assessments are helpful before the race even begins to help determine what the best running strategy is (diagnostic). Some assessments are beneficial during the race to track progress and see if adjustments to the strategy should be made during the race (formative). Some assessments are given to see if students in entire schools or districts, the entire running team, are moving forward and learning the material (interim). And some assessments are best at the very end of the race, to review performance, see how you did, and see how to improve for the next race (summative).

How to Use Assessments

Assessments help the teacher determine what to teach, how to teach, and in the end, how effectively they taught it. Assessments can run the gamut from start to finish when it comes to instruction. Think of it like a race that has a start and finish line and many stations to refuel in between.

If you have ever asked the question, “What is a formative assessment?” or have been confused by formative assessment vs. summative assessment or interim vs final, that’s OK! The Pear Assessment team is here to help!

What is a Diagnostic Assessment?

Are students ready for the next unit?  What knowledge do they already have about this topic?  Teachers who are curious about how much their class knows about a future topic can give diagnostic assessments before diving in.

Diagnostic assessments are pretests. They usually serve as a barometer for how much pre-loaded information a student has about a topic. The word diagnosis is defined as an analysis of the nature or condition of a situation, which is exactly how teachers tend to use them.

Diagnostic tests help to tell the teacher (and the student) how much they know and don’t know about an upcoming topic. This helps to inform the teacher’s lesson planning, learning objectives, and identify areas that may need more or less time spent on.

Components of a Diagnostic Assessment

  • Happen at the beginning of a unit, lesson, quarter, or period of time.
  • Goal of understanding student’s current position to inform effective instruction
  • Identify strengths and areas of improvement for the student
  • Low-stakes assessments (Usually do not count as a grade)

Difference Between Diagnostic and Formative Assessments

Though both diagnostic assessments and formative assessments aim to inform teachers to instruct more effectively, they emphasize different aspects.  Formative assessments are taken during a unit to assess how students are learning the material that the teacher has been teaching.  Diagnostic assessments come before this, analyzing what students have learned in the past, many times from different teachers or classes.  Both are very helpful for the teacher, and the results are used to identify areas that need more attention in future instruction.

Diagnostic Assessments Examples

At the beginning of a unit on Ancient Greece, a teacher may give a pre-test to determine if the class knows the basic geography, history or culture.  The class’ responses will determine where the teacher begins and how much time is dedicated to certain topics.  The teacher may learn from this diagnostic assessment that many students already have knowledge on cultural aspects of Greece, but know little about its history. From this, they may adjust the lesson plan to spend a bit more time on the history and origins of Ancient Greece and slightly less on culture.

Keep In Mind  

Another valuable use of a diagnostic pre-test is to give the students an idea of what they will have learned by end of the learning period.  When combined with a post test, their score on a pre-test will show students just how much knowledge they have gained.  This can be a powerful practice for building esteem in students.   In fact, some teachers even use the same pre-test and post-test to make this difference more evident. This strategy provides great data on how students have progressed is a sure-tell way to measure and analyze growth over the year.

The grading scale for a diagnostic assessment is usually not based on the number of correct answers and holds little weight for a student’s final grade. You might consider this type of test to be a low-stakes assessment for students.

Diagnostic Assessment Tools

Teachers use Pear Assessment to find or develop diagnostic assessments in a number of creative ways. Some teachers set up diagnostics in the form of introductory activities, classic multiple-choice assessments, or tech-enhanced “quizzes”. The automated grading feature of Pear Assessment  makes it easy to instantly know how much information the class as a whole already knows.

Access Free Diagnostic Assessments

Start off the year strong and know where student are at when they begin the school year. Access FREE grade level SmartStart diagnostic assessments for grades 3-12 ELA and Math. Click here to learn more and explore these diagnostic assessments and more in the Pear Assessment Test Library.

Screen shot of Pear Assessment's diagnostic window

What is a Formative Assessment?

How are students doing? Are they picking up the information they should be learning? Teachers who don’t want to wait until the end of a unit or semester use various tactics, like formative assessment, to “check in” with students and see how they are progressing.

What makes formative assessment stand out?

Formative assessment involves the use of immediate insights to guide instruction. If we break down the term, we see that “Formative” comes from Latin formare ‘to form.’  Assessment simply refers to an evaluation. Together the words “formative” and  “assessment” refer to a guiding evaluation that helps to shape something.  With formative assessment, teachers mold or form instruction to better suit student learning. To glean actionable insights, the best formative assessments are generally easy to implement and offer immediate results that lead to instant intervention or instructional adjustments.

Here’s how education academics Paul Black and Dylan William explain the differences between formative assessment and the general term “assessment”:

We use the general term assessment to refer to all those activities undertaken by teachers — and by their students in assessing themselves — that provide information to be used as feedback to modify teaching and learning activities. Such assessment becomes formative assessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching to meet student needs.

Another Way to Check-up on Everyone

One common way to think of a formative assessment is to think about “check-ups” with the doctor. During a check-up, the doctor assesses the status of your health to make sure you are on track and to identify any areas where you might need more attention or support. It can be used to promote healthy habits or catch symptoms of illness. If the doctor notices something amiss, they may ask you to exercise more or eat less sugar and more vegetables! The goal is to make strategic changes based on new insights. Similarly, formative assessment provides feedback to teachers, allowing them to “check-in” on how students are doing, or, to match this analogy, the “health” of learning!

Components that Define Formative Assessment

The main intent of formative assessment is to gather insight about student learning during a unit to track student progress and inform instruction.

Formative assessments usually comprise of the following key aspects

  • Low-stakes assessment
  • Goal of informing instruction
  • Gain insight on learning status
  • Helps identify knowledge retention and understanding
  • Daily, weekly, or otherwise frequent checks
  • Generally short and quick checks
  • Comes in many forms: quiz, exit ticket, artwork, venn diagram, game, presentation, etc.

Examples of Formative Assessment

Formative assessments could include benchmark tests, a class discussion, an “exit ticket” activity or any check-in the teacher conducts to see how much has been learned.  By taking a quick formative assessment, the teacher can see how much has been retained and then modify the upcoming lessons or activities to fill in the gaps or pick up the pace.  It allows, as the name suggests, a teacher to form or reshape the lessons as they go. Formative assessments can sometimes be called interim assessments.

As you might be able to tell, formative assessments come in many shapes and sizes. They are used by a teacher to assess, or diagnose, how much information has been learned at periodic times in the middle of a unit, subject or year. Formative assessments are the close cousin to diagnostic assessments (add link).

Formative assessments are used in the middle of a learning process to determine if students are maintaining the right pace.

Keep In Mind  

The second trend driving formative assessments is the common-core style of standardized tests.  Many schools are using formative tests to help guide the preparation of their students for the formal spring testing season– a time when results have an important impact on the school, district, and even the state. These kind of high-stakes assessments, such as PARCC, SBAC, AIR, ACT Aspire, etc., are driving the need for formative assessments throughout the year.

Like diagnostic assessments, formative assessments are usually given “cold”, without prior access to the information, to get an accurate sample of what has been retained. Similarly, they most often carry little weight towards the student’s final grade.

Online Formative Assessment with Pear Assessment

Many teachers use online digital assessment to gain immediate insights into student progress so they can immediately adjust teaching strategies or intervene where needed. Online assessment autogrades so ultimately teachers are able to save time and spend more time focusing on strong and effective instruction.

Log onto Pear Assessment to access a wide number of online digital assessments in the public assessment library. You may notice that a significant portion of digital assessments in the library are dedicated to helping students prepare for spring testing. Many Pear Assessment Certified assessments are modeled after the tech-enhanced style of questions that are found on the spring assessments. Using these throughout the year helps students build a comfort level with tech-enhanced maneuvers that are key to success on spring tests.

Try out some online formative assessments created by teachers across the country. Assign them to your students or log in to Pear Assessment to create a free account and start making your own!

What is a Benchmark/Interim Assessment?

Are students within a whole school or district understanding the material? Where is there room for growth and how can instruction be improved? These are the types of questions that teachers and school leaders ask and hope to answer when giving benchmark exams.

Defining Benchmark Assessments

A benchmark exam is given across many classes, an entire grade level, a whole school, or across a district. The purpose of a benchmark exam is to understand if students have mastered specific standards and are ready to move on. Typically, benchmark exams are given to help students prepare for end of year state testing, like PARCC, AIR, SBAC, FSA, or PSSA.

It’s important to note that the terms “benchmark exam” and “interim assessment” are used interchangeably. They both are used to measure academic progress of large groups of students. Ideally, the results of a benchmark exam help teachers understand what lessons they need to reteach and which students need extra support. Beyond this, benchmark exams act as a “preview” to how a class, school, or district will perform on state tests or summative exams.

Components of a Benchmark Exam:

  • Help drive future instruction
  • Term used interchangeably with “interim assessment”
  • Given to many classes, a whole school, or across an entire district
  • Act as a “predictor” to state test scores

Is There a Difference Between Interim Assessment and Benchmark Exam? What About Formative Assessment?

There can be lots of confusion about the different types of assessments. It’s important to recognize these differences and understand how each type of assessment fits into the overall learning process of each student.

There is little to no difference between an interim assessment and a benchmark exam. They are both formal tests often given using technology, like Pear Assessment, to thoroughly and efficiently monitor student progress.

Benchmark exams are also formative in that they help teachers drive their future instruction. While traditional formative assessments are given in one class, benchmark exams are usually given across many different classes or across an entire school. The best benchmark exams give data quickly, so teachers can act on it. This is why digital assessment is great for benchmark exams

Online Benchmark Exams With Pear Assessment

Schools and districts across the country have turned to Pear Assessment Enterprise to administer their common benchmark exams. When benchmark exams are given online, the results are instant and the data can immediately be used to help teachers modify their future lessons. School leaders can set up the test quickly and easily; they even can tie every question to a state standard.

For example, at Burton School District in California, district leaders and teachers are able to push out districtwide benchmark exams without a headache. David Shimer, Director of Education Services at Burton Schools, explains, “I think the ‘aha’ moment was when, within a period of one week, we were able to get every student across the district logged in, have teachers get an assessment from their students, and as a district we were able to get the charts and graphs back in ways that allowed us to adjust instruction and training.”

What is a Summative Assessment?

How well did a student do in this class? Did they learn this unit’s material? When people talk about classic tests or finals, a summative assessment is normally the type of assessment they are referring to.

In this category of assessments, you’ll find the “Big Kahuna” of tests, such as the finals that we pull all-nighters for as well as the tests that get you into college or let you drive on the roads.  Summative assessments document how much information was retained at the end of a designated period of learning (e.g. unit, semester, or school year).

Components of Summative Assessments:

  • Evaluate learning/understanding at the end of a checkpoint
  • Normally help to determine students’ grade
  • Used for accountability of schools, students, and teachers
  • Usually higher stakes than other assessment forms
  • Preparation and review is helpful for best performance

Summative Assessment Examples

At the end of a semester or a school year, summative tests are used to see how much the student actually learned. It can be the midterm,  final grade, or standardized tests. The best summative assessments require a higher level of thinking that synthesizes several important concepts together.

Keep In Mind  

In the traditional sense of the term, summative assessments are what we think of as the big end-of-the-year bubble-sheet or pen-and-paper finals. In the modern-day tech-enhanced classroom summative assessments are increasingly delivered online. Summative assessments can even take the shape of multi-media presentations, group projects, creative writing, plays or other hands-on projects that demonstrate a mastery of the material.
In summative assessments, the scores tend to have a significant effect on the student’s final grade or whatever is designated as the measurement of success.

Summative Assessment Tools

Teachers use Pear Assessment’s multimedia function to create summative assessments that use video as a prompt.  The multimedia can engage students with audio and visual items and then requires the students to summarize their learning in a classic essay.  The result is a traditional, “classic” exam with sophisticated multi-media components.

With Pear Assessment’s standards-tied questions, teachers who give summative assessments can immediately identify if students mastered the concepts they needed to know.


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