Assessments: What are they and why are they important?

Every day, every one of us are making assessments – teachers, ECEs, and parents included.  What does assessment mean?  What are the different types of assessments?  How can you tell when it is a ‘good’ assessment tool?

Definition

Assessment can mean a variety of different things. For example, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines assessment as “the action or an instance of making a judgment about something” – an assessment can be a judgement call.  Based upon your knowledge and experience you make an informal assessment.  For example, I would judge that giving hot glue guns to three-year old children is not developmentally appropriate.  Why?  Because I have the developmental knowledge, training, and experience, I then make an informed judgement – an assessment – that it is unsafe

Assessment can also mean an appraisal or evaluation.  It can have more official role such as the financial assessment value of a house.

Informal Assessments

Assessments can be informal or formal.  “Formal” and “informal” are not technical or psychometric terms but are terms that help define what type of assessment is being used.  Informal assessments can include observations, interviews, and checklists.  Informal assessments can be based upon your own general knowledge and experience.  Or, informal assessments can be something found on Pinterest or something you make up yourself.  “Informal assessment is defined as techniques that can easily be incorporated into classroom routines and learning activities, and are identified as unstructured (e.g., writing samples, homework, journals, games, debates) or structured (e.g., checklists, close tests, rating scales, questionnaires, structured interviews)” (p. 1).  Informal assessments are not standardized, they do not have the reliability and validity that is required for formal assessments.  Yet, they are useful and used in many situations.

Furthermore, informal assessments can be structured or unstructured.  An example of an unstructured informal assessment would be asking a child to write in a journal while an example of a structured informal assessment would be scored activities such as quizzes or tests. Remember, informal basically means it has not been thoroughly tested by an enormous amount of people, it has not been formalized and is not standardized.

Pros and Cons of Informal Assessments

Informal assessments are done daily by everyone.   They are practical and useful tools which can give a great amount of information and help people make decisions.  They are based upon knowledge, training, skills, education, and experience.  They are easily obtained and are less expensive to facilitate.  They are useful as they can be changed based upon the situation, person, or tools at hand – that is, informal assessments can be individualized. 

Psychologically speaking, informal assessments cannot be used to diagnosis anyone.  They do not “hold up in court” and are not the authority on whatever is being assessed.  For ECEs or teachers, they are important and useful tools to determine whether the child is meeting developmental milestones, whether they are learning the material being taught, and can help to determine whether the child needs a more formalized assessment. “Informal assessment cannot completely replace the formal assessment. We need both, as one complements the other, in depicting accurate pictures of our students” (Abdao, 2015).

Formal Assessments

For formal assessments, “test publishers provide information about the test’s validity and reliability, fulfilling another requirement of evaluation. And, standardized test scores generally have been accepted by educators and the community” (Wilde et al, 2010,  p. 4).  These are usually published by a large company who has done extensive research on the assessment’s validity and reliability.  Validity means that the assessment has been proven to show it tests what it says it tests and reliability means that results are statistically reliable. “Reliability, in its purest sense, refers to the ability of a measure to discriminate levels of competency among persons who take it” (Wilde et al, 2010, p. 11).  Informal assessments can be valid and reliable, but they do not hold as much authority as formal assessments because they have not been formally tested with a large amount of people.  For example, if I do an assessment with ten five-year-olds and find they can all write their name I would not be able to state that writing one’s name is a normal and appropriate developmental task for all or even most five-year-olds.  I have not done a formal, reliable, and valid assessment.  I have done an informal assessment but not a formal one.

Levels of Assessments

Generally formal assessments are stated as being level A, B or C.  Level A assessments are defined as those in which almost anyone can administer.  They require minimum training – perhaps just a few hours or a day – and minimum education (sometimes they require a grade twelve education or a grade eight reading level).  Pearson publishers’ states that “there are no special qualifications to purchase these [A Level] products.” 

 

Level B assessments are done by persons who have a Master’s level of education or higher, which includes courses in research methods, assessments, and the appropriate skills and knowledge.  (An interesting fact – when buying a Level B assessment, the buyer must prove their competency).  Pearson publishes states that Level B “tests may be purchased by individuals with:A Master’s degree in psychology, education. . . or in a field closely related to the intended use of the assessment, and formal training in the ethical administration, scoring, and interpretation of clinical assessments.”

Level C assessments are restricted to those who have a Doctorate degree, such as psychiatrists.  Again, Pearson publishers states that “tests with a C qualification require a high level of expertise in test interpretation, and can be purchased by individuals with: A doctorate degree in psychology, education, or closely related field with formal training in the ethical administration, scoring and interpretation of clinical assessments related to the intended use of the assessment” and/or other relevant levels of training.  Basically, some Level C assessments require not only a Doctorate degree but also further training. 

Pros and Cons of Formal Assessments

The greatest downfall of standardized tests and assessments are their overuse and their misuse.  Often people will unwillingly claim that the test provides evidence for things in which it was not originally meant for, or the tests are used in situations which are not appropriate, or they are used by people without the proper training.

Formal assessments are also costly and can be time consuming.  The person administrating the assessment must have a certain level of education or training, they must have the appropriate tools which may be costly, and the situation in which they administrate the test may be narrow.  The scoring of these tests can also be complicated and time consuming.

However, the information obtained from such tests can be invaluable.  They can often provide a diagnosis, which can lead to appropriate treatment.  To use an everyday example, if you go to your family doctor and he/she thinks you have asthma, you would (hopefully) then be sent to a specialist who would do standardized tests (assessments) and give you a diagnosis of what your breathing issues are.  The specialist provides a standardized assessment and a diagnosis based upon reliable and valid criteria for asthma.

Conclusion

Hopefully this has helped you to understand what the differences are between formal land informal assessments, and what the advantages and disadvantages are to each.

Please see my website for further information on what Ridge Meadows Counselling can provide:  www.ridgemeadowscounselling.com

Mary Stanwood, MA, RCC

Resources

Abdao, D. (2015). Formal and Informal Assessments (2015). https://abdao.wordpress.com/2015/07/18/formal-and-informal-assessments/

Merriam-Webster Dictionary. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/assessment

Madigan, A.  and Ivelisse Martinez-Beck, I. (Project Managers) (2014). Early childhood developmental screening: a compendium of measures for children ages birth to five

Pearson publishers. https://www.pearsonclinical.ca/en/ordering/qualification-levels.html

Wilde, C. J., Nelson, C., Martinez, R., & Hargett, G., (2010). Informal assessment in educational evaluation: implications for bilingual education programs, Navarette, National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (NCBE)

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