Assessing students can be crucial in helping to develop effective ways of "reaching" particular students. I will never forget the first time I taught. I was the "preceptor" of a discussion section of a large lecture course. I sat at a table with about twelve students twice a week, and we discussed the work being studied as well as the professor's lectures about that work. One student sat at the far end of the table from me. He seemed completely bored, negative, and even hostile. One day I finally kept him after class to ask why he seemed so negative. He revealed that he was not bored or hostile but was in fact highly nervous and greatly intimidated by the other students, who seemed to know so much more than he did. I have never forgotten that discussion, because it taught me not to make assumptions about a student's thinking but rather to try to speak directly with students, when necessary, to find out what is really going on inside their minds when they seem disengaged.
Assessments are important for another reason. Through assessments, teachers can recognize special intellectual gifts in their students. When this happens, a teacher can challenge a student in different ways. Or a teacher can even talk to the student's parents for additional classes - perhaps even at a local community college. It is a shame when teacher do not challenge and develop the full potential in their students.
I like the idea that assessment should not be the same thing as grading, but I also think that assessment is not necessarily the same thing as testing either. Assessment is a method of checking whether the goals and objectives of a given lesson have been met. Effective assessment tests students AND teachers, as well as the lesson itself. At its simplest, assessment is important because it is a system of quality control that continually checks to make sure our teaching methods and students learning methods are successful.
Teacher assessments come (hopefully) from a basis of understanding the student as an individual; their learning style, level of commitment, level of support, etc. In this way, teacher assessment can be fairer than externally marked snapshot tests as the assessment can be done holistically with an appreciation of the performance of the student in relation to the course offered. Of course, teacher assessment can also be biased: how much reward is given for effort compared to attainment can be colored by a teacher's view of an individual. That said, teacher assessment assists teachers to review their programmes in terms of student engagement and performance, and can be conducted throughout a course rather in a strained hour at the end of it.
Teacher assessments are very important (sometimes more important than student assessments). When grading a test (formal assessment) or having a discussion (informal assessment), I use student response to insure that they are absorbing the material that I need them to. For example, if all of the students miss the same question ion a test, something is wrong with the question--or I did not go over the material well enough to provide mastery. In those instances, I throw out the question, reteach, and assess again. Assessment is important for everyone involved.
I agree that there is a distinct differenct between assessment and grading, although it took my first few years of teaching to really understand that. I believe that assessment has a definite role before, during, and after instruction. I pretest frequently over areas throughout the year. These scores then fall into three possible ranges. If a student "tests out" by demonstrating mastery, then they don't need to spend the time rehashing what they already know. Some students fall into the tutorial group, which means that they need grade-level appropriate instruction. Others need intensive remediation. This type of formal assessment allows me to keep all students working at challenge level whatever it happens to be for them.
In our reading groups, the assessment is informal but just as valid. As a fairly new teacher, I tried the literature circle role sheets so I had something to assign a grade to, but I noticed that their discussions were more shallow and less involved when using them. I struggled for several years on how to "grade" their literature discussions before deciding that I didn't have to assign a grade to everything they did to make it valid. It is in situations like these that I sometimes feel that grading is almost a hinderance to what we do.
Teachers who don't assess frequently and in multiple ways, whether through exit slips, question boards, or just by watching students' expressions and body language to adjust teaching speed, are missing out on an invaluable way to tailor their teaching to suit the needs of the students.
Yes, we need to be very careful that we do not confuse assessment with grading. Assessment, for me as a teacher, is vital because it helps me know that I have done my job well and that the students I have taught have actually learned something. If I do not assess, I cannot know this. Also, assessment is important because it gives students an opportunity to see that they themselves have learned something and hopefully this will encourage them to gain self-confidence and esteem.
Assessments are important both for students and for teachers. For both groups, assessments (assuming that they are done correctly) give a great deal of information. They tell what things the student has or has not learned. For the student, this information is a sign about what sort of things he or she needs to study more. For the teacher, the assessments can tell what individual students need help with. They can also (assuming that the teacher analyzes them) tell the teacher which things he or she has done a good job of teaching. This can inform the teacher about what needs to be reinforced and perhaps about what strategies did and did not work.
In these ways, assessments of students can help both students and teachers do a better job.