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California State University, Sacramento



It is important that faculty across general education areas agree on the meaning of terms that will be used in assessing courses and programs. Selected assessment terms are defined below. Faculty should dialogue about these definitions and make changes to them until there is a common understanding about assessment.


"Assessment is an ongoing process aimed at understanding and improving student learning. It involves making our expectations explicit and public; setting appropriate criteria and standards for learning quality; systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well performance matches those expectations and standards; and using the resulting information to document, explain, and improve performance." (Tom Angelo, 1995)

"Assessment is the systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development." (Palomba & Banta, 1999)

Capstone Assessment

Assessment of outcomes structured into learning experiences occurring at the end of a program. The experiences involve demonstration of a comprehensive range of program outcomes through some type of product or performance. The outcomes may be those of the major and of the general education program or of the major only. (Palomba & Banta, 1999)


Performance descriptors that indicate how well students will meet expectations of what they should be able to think, know or do. They are descriptive benchmarks against which performance is judged. These criteria or standards may be described in varying gradients of success as in rubrics or in grades. Often they are stated in terms of percentages, percentiles, or other quantitative measures (Nichols, 2000).

Direct Assessment Methods

These methods involve students' displays of knowledge and skills (e.g. test results, written assignments, presentations, classroom assignments) resulting from learning experiences in the class/program. (Palomba & Banta, 1999)


Decisions made about assessment findings; deciding about the value of programs/program outcomes; may involve recommendations for changes.

Formative Assessment

Assessment conducted during a performance/course/program with the purpose of providing feedback that can be used to modify, shape, and improve a performance/course/program. (Palombra & Banta, 1999)


Description of intended results of learning stated in global, general terms, e.g. clear communication, problem solving.


Values placed on varying levels of achievement in course assignments and/or examinations. Course assignments and tests can be used for assessment if they are clearly linked to course/program goals and if the assessment is based on established criteria and standards.

Holistic Scoring

A type of grading in which an assignment is given an overall score. Possible scores are described in a rating scale. A high score indicates achievement of all aspects of the assignment, while a low score means few if any of the desired outcomes have been achieved. The score levels need to be specific enough to reveal meaningful,diagnostic information when the scores are aggregated. (Ewell, 1991; Palomba & Banta, 1999).

Indirect Assessment Methods

Assessment methods that involve perceptions of learning rather than actual demonstrations of outcome achievement (e.g. alumni surveys, employer surveys, exit interviews).


Synonymous with outcomes. Statements that describe measurable expectations of what students should be able to think, know or do when they've completed a given educational program. Each statement should describe one expectation; should not bundle several into one statement. The statements must be clear and easily understood by all faculty in the area/department.


Statements that describe qualitative or quantitative measurable expectations of what students should be able to think, know or do when they've completed a given educational program. Synonymous with learning objectives. Each statement should describe one expectation; should not bundle several into one statement. The statements must be clear and easily understood by all faculty in the area/department. (Nichols, 2000)

Portfolio Assessment

A type of direct measure, a performance measure, in which students' assignments are carefully reviewed for evidence of desired learning outcomes. The portfolios contain work selected over a period of time, with materials added as the student progresses through the course/program. In addition, the portfolios usually include students' reflective learning/outcome analysis statements. (Lyons, 1998)

Primary Trait Analysis

Factors or traits (assignment specific) that are considered in scoring an assignment generally stated in a hierarchical scale of three to five incremental levels of achievement quality. For each level on the scale there is a specific statement that describes expected behavior (criterion) at that level. (Palomba & Banta, 1999; Walvoord & Anderson, 1998).

Scoring Guide/Rubric

A kind of holistic or primary trait scoring in which detailed criteria are delineated and used to discriminate among levels of achievement in assignments, performances, or products.

Summative Assessment/Evaluation

Assessment conducted after a program has been implemented and completed to make judgments about its quality or worth compared to previously defined standards. (Palombra & Banta, 1999)


Angelo, T. (1995). Improving Classroom Assessment to Improve Learning", Assessment Update, 7(6), 1-2, 13-14.

Nichols J, & Nichols K. (2000). The Departmental Guide and Record Book for Student Outcomes Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness. NY: Agathon Press.

Ewell, P.T. (1991). To Capture the Ineffable: New Forms of Assessment in Higher Education. In G. Grant (ed.), Review of Research in Education, no. 17, Washington D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

Lyons, N. "Portfolios and Their Consequences: Developing as a Reflective Practitioner". In N. Lyons (ed.), With Portfolio in Hand: Validating the New Teacher Professionalism, New York: Teacher's College Press.

Palomba, C & Banta T. (1999). Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, and Improving Assessment in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

  • Walvoord, B. and Anderson V.J., (1998). Effective Grading. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.