The Basic Concept
Student assessment is prominent in most education systems, and its prominence is only increasing in the age of market-based education development, comparative rankings under the guise of accountability, and "scientific" reform. But assessment is implemented in a huge variety of ways.
One fundamental distinction in assessment is that of intent. We can differentiate between assessment for learning, which is formative and ongoing, and assessment of learning, which is usually just summative. Generally, summative assessment will tend towards the formal, whereas formative assessment can include formal testing or be as informal as teacher observation. While most assessment is carried out by some kind of adult authority figure, we should also give consideration to students' involvement as co-assessors, through peer, group, or self-assessment, particularly when the goal is to have students better understand how to improve their work.
For a richer understanding of assessment, we should also consider possible varieties of assessment tasks, and the tools used to evaluate how students do on those tasks. In the case of many conventional assessments, such as multiple-choice exams, the assessment task is directly connected to the assessment tool. In other cases, the assessment task is distinct from the tool, as when a rubric is used to score a particular performance task or essay. An advantage of separating the task from the tool is that it frees teachers up to consider more authentic forms of assessment in which students demonstrate higher level and more complex skills than those required for paper-based tests.
Used appropriately, assessment is a valuable pedagogic tool that provides information about who is learning what and how well. This helps teachers to understand which teaching strategies are working well and with which students, what needs to be revisited, and helps to inform future planning. For students, assessment provides feedback, reinforcement, and guidance on their learning and progress. For both teachers and students, it contributes to accountability.
Effective assessment is multi-modal--using a variety of strategies--and on-going. It is carried out in relation to clearly established and predefined goals and criteria, and it often involves students as participants, rather than objects. If assessments are well designed, then assessment criteria should outline and scaffold what good work is in a given area of student learning/development. The idea of "teaching to the test" is only really problematic when a test is poorly design--which, unfortunately, is most of the time.
Assessment should be an important part of education. The problem comes when it begins to eclipse other aspects of the education system, and when it starts to become an end in itself. Too often we see assessments which have become disconnected from real curricular goals, or assessments designed to be easy to mark rather than to provide real insight to improve teaching and learning. Too often we see assessments used to stream students into academic or non-academic tracks. The tacit outcome of this is students with mangled self concepts, learning "their place" in the social hierarchy, and establishing expectations about their respective futures, all based on trivial bubble sheets which have little or no substantive relevance to the skills required for life outside the classroom. By making assessment the de facto goal of education, we have allowed the low-level knowledge and skills that are so convenient to grade to occupy the bulk of our time and attention, both in the classroom and out. We've created a self-referencing system in which "quality" measures link back to test scores, without stopping to notice that the emperor has no clothes.
In addition to the individual consequences for children and youth, there are also important political consequences to consider. The experience of the US is particularly telling. With over a decade of high-stakes testing under NCLB, it is easy to see now how the policy which was so full of fine rhetoric was in fact just a Trojan Horse for school choice movement. This has led to an accelerating distortion of educational priorities in which the new "heroes" are test-obsessed high pressure charter school with extended hours of test prep and cramming. Assessment should support the grand narrative of our education and social development, but we must not let it become that grand narrative.
What gets measured matters. Assessment is a key driver of education system because it directs the focus of students, teachers, and parents, to those things which are measured--which in turn gives them a heavy emphasis. This is problematic when the things measured are left to default, convenience, or convention. But when we recognize how the relationship between measurement and importance works, it opens the door for us to reinforce other priorities.
There are feasible and effective ways to assess just about anything. There are ways to gage and report on any aspect of learning or development. When we open up the question of what gets assessed, what gets reported, as well as how this assessment process takes place, who is involved, and so on, we provide ourselves the means to harness and control a major driver of change. Our objective in assessment should be to find a way to track, provide feedback, and report on the things that we claim matter to us. Whether we are interested in democratization, sustainability, social justice, or some other aspect of social transformation, the point is that we should be intentional about the what and how of assessment, rather than leaving these to be dictated by other forces.