Poster with the word ''What is Ipsative Assessment'' Most educators are familiar with at least three different categories of assessments:

  1. Formative assessments – which are essentially ”on the fly” assessments that provide a snapshot of where students happen to be with respect to their on-going competence on a subject being assessed; these assessments have been increasingly used over the past two decades;
  2. Summative assessments – which are usually end of term/end of year assessments seeking to ”sum up” how much students have learned over a longer period of time with respect to a specific set of skills or content.
  3. Standardized assessments – these are summative assessments that compare students, not to a set of standards or competencies, but rather to a quantitative ”norm” based on the performance of a group of comparable students who took the exam when it was originally being developed for the marketplace.

Whenever I’ve given teacher workshops on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences and the topic of assessment, I have usually asked my teacher participants if they know what another category of assessments are: ”ipsative” measures. Virtually no one turns out to be familiar with the term.  I learned about it during my Master’s degree program at Lesley College in Cambridge, Massachusetts in the mid-1970’s.  Here are ten things you should know about ”ipsative” assessment:

  1. The word ”ipsative” comes from the Latin ipse meaning ”of the self.”
  2. In the field of psychometrics, ”ipsative” refers to an assessment instrument (e.g. test) that requires the test-taker to choose from among several options (often also called ”forced choice”).  This is not the meaning that that I have in mind here.
  3. In the field of education, ”ipsative” refers to comparing an individual’s performance on a measure to his or her past performances.  This is the meaning that I wish to highlight.
  4. In my estimation, ”ipsative” assessment is far more important than any of the other forms of assessment described above.  What we should be concerned about is how much individual progress a student makes, not whether he knows this or that chunk of knowledge or meets a statistical ”norm”.
  5. The theoretical basis for this second meaning of ”ipsative” is to be found in humanistic education and psychology, whereas competency-based assessments are rooted more in the field of behaviorism, while standardized assessments are based in logical positivism (the idea that truth can best be expressed quantitatively).
  6. ”Ipsative” assessments place a primacy upon the individual, and on individual development.  In this estimation, a student who improves in their reading from a 2.2 grade level to a 4.1 level should be regarded as a better learner than one who improved from a 3.9 reading level to a 5.2 level, even though the second student is over one grade level higher than the first student.
  7. The problem with the current state of testing and assessment in schools is that all the praise and glory goes to the students with the highest test scores, the highest reading levels, and the highest grades.  These high performances can be attributed to any number of things from students” innate ability to their high socio-economic status.
  8. On the other hand, even a student who has a so-called ”low” achievement level (teachers even call them ”my low students”), may actually be the superior learner if he shows greater individual improvement over his past efforts.  This may reflect their having received special help in the interim (e.g. from a tutor), or from their having shown greater effort over time.
  9. Research tells us that those who believe that ”effort” can improve a person’s intelligence and achievement (a growth mindset), do better over the long haul, than those who believe that one is either born smart or not (a fixed mindset).  Thus, the person who shows greater individual growth via ”ipsative” assessment, is to be regarded as the better learner over the one who demonstrates less growth with respect to their previous assessments, even if their knowledge base or normative assessments are higher.
  10. In the future, educators should focus more attention on ”ipsative” assessment.  While ”ipsative” assessment can take place on a strictly quantitative level (e.g. looking at pre- and post-test results), a better example of how this might work in reading instruction would be, at the beginning of the year, to videotape the student reading a book they select and then having a conversation with a peer or the teacher on its contents, and then at the end of the year (or at some point in between), repeat the same process.  Then, the teacher and student together can watch the ”pre” and ”post” videos, and discuss the improvements they see in the student’s reading ability.

It’s time that teachers made ”ipsative” assessment (comparing a student to his past performances), a regular part of their vocabulary.  This shift in emphasis would be a welcome countermeasure to the current emphasis on ”core” learning skills and standardized test scores taken as absolute values.  Teachers can still use these assessments with their students, but change the way they interpret the results from an absolute perspective (e.g. this child knows x,y,z; or this student scored 7.6 on this test), to a relative and comparative one (e.g. this student improved from a 4.5 to a 6.7 reading level).  While teachers already do this to some extent, what’s most important is keeping in mind that improvement over time is really the crucial measure of a student’s learning progress, not the competencies attained or the test results alone.


For more information about using assessments in a variety of contexts based on student diversity, see my book Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 4th Edition

Cover of book Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom, 4th Ed.

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I'm the author of 19 books including my latest: If Einstein Ran the Schools: Revitalizing U.S. Education - https://amzn.to/2KAxT8F.

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