Assessments help teachers and schools determine student progress. The types of assessments -- formative and summative -- and the methods -- objective and subjective -- are the same at the elementary and secondary levels. However, there are key differences in how and why assessments are used. These differences relate to scope, the skills they seek to develop, how important the assessments are to a student’s academic future and to the number of tests students must take.
The primary differences between elementary and secondary school assessments are the breadth of subjects tested and the depth of testing in each subject. For example, according to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, elementary students will be assessed in a broad subject, for example math, which is broken down into narrower subjects, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. By contrast, secondary students will be assessed in a series of complementary math-based subjects, ranging from numbers and quantities to algebra and functions or statistics and probability.
Assessments in elementary school focus on a basic understanding of certain subjects; assessments in secondary school focus on applying, evaluating and synthesizing understanding of those subjects. For example, following the Common Core standards, a third grader would be evaluated on her ability to understand a reading selection, while an 11th grader would demonstrate her ability to cite textual evidence to support an analysis of a selection.
Another key difference between elementary and secondary school assessments relates to what they indicate and how teachers and schools use the results. In elementary school, assessments have lower stakes for the students. If a student does not do well on a standardized assessment in elementary school, she still will be able to move ahead if she succeeds in class. However, as of 2011 at the secondary level, 24 states had instituted an exit examination, which seniors must pass in order to graduate.
A final key difference is the number of tests administered at each level. Elementary students take far fewer standardized assessments. Because assessments have such high stakes at the secondary level, older students often take preparatory tests before tackling standardized assessments or exit exams. For example, Pennsylvania students must take the Pennsylvania State Standards Assessments to determine proficiency in subjects such as English and math. To help teachers identify areas where students are succeeding and struggling, secondary students also take the Keystone Exams at the end of each year. Additionally, some districts encourage students to take a practice exam for the Keystones. By comparison, elementary students in the state take only the PSSA.
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