There are four common orientations to assessment:
How well a student does in a course should, somehow, be relative to how well others in the class do.
Students’ success/grades in a course should be relative to how much they improve over the course of the term.
A student’s success in a course should be entirely related to his or her relative achievement of the stated learning outcomes.
It is important to note here that each of these orientations to assessment are legitimate and appropriate in various contexts for learning. No one orientation is better than another. However, once context has been considered and the orientation to assessment matches intentions for teaching and learning, then some orientations become more appropriate than others. Context is therefore quite important. Consider the scenario of Johnny and Jane. Only once we knew that the Canadian Swimmers Association had expectations for their swim program did an entirely criterion-referenced orientation best suit the context.
Assessments have incredible impact upon learners – what students attend to, how they work, and how they go about their studying. If learners come to understand and perform based on assessment practices, then an instructor’s assessment plan has significant impact on whether or not intended learning outcomes are achieved. If outcomes emphasize application but the assessment measures identification, then learners are hindered in achievement in application.