Ah, assessment. There’s little in the education world that sparks as much passion and controversy. How students are assessed has been a matter of debate in the American educational sphere for over 150 years. Did you know debates around standardized testing started all the way back in the 1840s?

And it has every right to be a hot-button issue. Assessment is, after all, the method by which we measure students’ (and to a certain extent, teachers’) success. It shows us how students are learning, what areas they need more support in, and whether a given learning framework is working or needs to be revised. The stakes for creating intelligent, meaningful assessment are high.

Assessment Then and Now

Perhaps it’s unsurprising then, how much student evaluation has changed in recent decades as educators and policymakers have attempted to craft assessment strategies that best represent a given student’s abilities. It’s no secret that children today are assessed differently than their parents’ generation. But what exactly has changed?

Today, teachers emphasize ongoing, formative assessment rather than summative assessment at the end of a unit or course. Furthermore, there has been a movement away from indirect to direct assessment. Let’s do a side-by-side comparison of how a typical American student was evaluated in the 1980s as compared to today.


Show what you know

For a long time, assessments were designed in a rearward-looking way. This meant students were asked to demonstrate knowledge of a particular concept but didn’t necessarily have to apply it to new situations. One article likens this method to having students show they know the rules of the road, but not that they can safely operate a car. Evidently, this kind of theoretical knowledge is useful and important, but it is not comprehensive.

Indirect Assessment

In previous decades, fill-in-the-bubble exams were the norm in the United States. This was even used for testing things like writing and editing skills. Though these kinds of assessments can provide helpful benchmarks, they limit a teacher’s ability to pinpoint students’ difficulties and give support or feedback.

Summative Assessment

In the past, assessments were more formal and limited in scope. Think traditional tests, essays, quizzes, and oral presentations. Students’ grades were derived mainly, if not entirely, from these kinds of final assessments. While these kinds of assessments can offer a useful measure of a student’s knowledge or skills, they give limited chances for students to improve based on teacher feedback.


Theoretical knowledge is taught alongside practical skills that prepare students for post-secondary study or the workplace. The emphasis is on developing transferable skills.

Apply your knowledge

Today’s assessments try to evaluate students in a more comprehensive way. Theoretical knowledge is taught alongside practical skills that prepare students for postsecondary study or the workplace and the emphasis is on developing transferable skills. This kind of assessment is forward-looking. It gives students a toolkit for tackling real-world challenges, rather than simply testing content retention.

Direct Assessment

The philosophy of direct assessment is that in order to give helpful feedback it’s crucial to see not only whether a student got the right answer, but how they got there. These days, teachers look directly at writing samples, calculations, and so on to determine how well students understand a given concept and how they can best support their learning.

Formative Assessment

Even though summative assessment still exists and plays a role in how students are evaluated, today a much greater emphasis is placed on building skills through formative assessment. Students receive ongoing feedback and are often given chances to revise or improve their work based on teacher comments. For instance, a student might be given opportunities to get teacher feedback on a topic, thesis statement, and essay outline before having to hand in a completed paper for marks.  

So there you have it—three key differences in how students have been assessed thirty years ago versus today. Today’s assessment focuses on a comprehensive, holistic approach to gain an overall picture of a child’s abilities, rather than focusing exclusively on traditional test-taking in the form of written tests, quizzes, or oral presentations. We hope this has been an interesting and informative overview of how assessment has changed and developed over the years. What were your evaluation experiences like when you were in school? Sound off in the comments below.

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