Assessment in Schools: What, why, and how?

I’ve spent a lot of time recently reading up on assessment, and thought I would share a little of what I’ve found.

Since being introduced to the idea of AfL during my PGCE, I’ve struggled trying to find a way to make sure that assessment is really embedded in my teaching, but without a good understanding of what assessment actually is and why I should bother this has been a difficult process.

Decent teachers check that students are learning. Even better teachers change what they are doing to make sure students are learning ‘better’. We call this teaching; as I heard Andrew Davies say at the recent Leeds Trinity University Postgraduate Conference for Education (and launch of the West Yorkshire branch of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain) “Teachers are not teaching unless they are interacting with their pupils.” Really, if you’re not changing what you’re doing to match the needs and progress of learners then it’s not really teaching, it’s just talking at people.

Arguably assessment is more important than ever, especially given that the removal of national curriculum levels has rightly or wrongly taken away one tool for discussing progress. This has been noted by the NFER in “Where have all the levels gone?“.

So, in order to try and contribute to this discourse about assessment I want to give my spin on the questions “what is assessment?”, “why do we bother?”, and “how can we do it?”.

What is assessment?

I think the definition of assessment in a school context is tied up with its purpose, since

The purpose of any assessment is to measure the level of some defined trait, quality or ability within the subject being tested. This may be a body of knowledge, competence in a skill, or estimation of future potential.

(Tisi et al 2013)

So, simply, I’d say that assessment is any tool used to measure these things.

Why do we bother assessing?

The ASE’s policy document on assessment gives three major purposes of assessment:

  • To support and improve teaching and learning directly
  • To improve the performance of teachers and institutions
  • To promote lifelong learning through qualifications and to provide information to the wider community

If we take these points in turn we can really see why assessment is a foundation of everything that happens in school, and goes far beyond exam questions or tests.

Here I’d like to focus on the top one; teaching and learning. The second point is more suited to a wider institutional look at assessment, and links into the performance management and appraisal process. Far more knowledgeable folk than me have written at length about how to make this effective!

The final point is more related to society as a whole which, although interesting and very important, is too much to write about now.

How assessment works and matters

Quality of teaching

We need absolutely need to avoid the ‘twin sins’ of traditional curriculum design (Wiggins & McTighe), which are…

  • activity-oriented planning, ‘hands-on without being minds-on’
  • planning for ‘coverage’, concentrating on teaching the content

Whitehouse (2014) says that “while these approaches might lead to classrooms that look productive, in the first case physical activity and talk, and in the second case teacher exposition and student notetaking, the result is the same: students who cannot see the intellectual purpose of the lesson”

The alternative is to…

  • focus on teaching and assessing for understanding and learning transfer
  • designing a curriculum ‘backward’ from those ends

This is ‘backward design’; assessment considered first, lessons designed around them. In this sense assessment is put at the core of all teaching. It flips the “starter/main/plenary” model on its head, and instead treats lesson planning as answering a series of questions;

  1. What am I actually teaching? This should be accurately related to specifications or new NC
    references, and appropriate to the class.
  2. What do I want learners to have done by the end of this lesson? This is where we can
    produce assessable outcomes, and consider developing activities around these objectives.
  3. How am I going to support them to do it? This includes any initial exposition, and
    differentiated scaffolding through the lesson.
  4. How am I going to get them interested in the first place? What’s the ‘hook’?

Since any change must be evaluated (otherwise it’s a bit pointless; how will you know if it was a waste of time or not?), then quality of teaching in this sense could be evaluated through lesson observation, learner feedback, or reading developed schemes of work, amongst other ways.

Quality of Learning

Alongside making sure that the teaching is excellent, assessment can be used to improve learning. This is seen in the findings of Karpike & Roediger (2008), which show that regular testing of content massively aids retention – far, far more than “revision” (which is shown to be largely ineffective without assessment). The implications of this are simple; every test should be as synoptic as possible to allow students to retain as much knowledge as possible.

The recommendation here is that there is a regular ‘testing’ regimen, and that it contains synoptic elements of all material studied. Ever. Or at least in your subject area.

The evaluation of this strategy might again come from pupil surveys, but also from test data.

What now?

It’s the time of year when teachers are frequently required to redesign year plans and schemes of work. Maybe just think about trying some ‘backwards design’ when it comes to assessments, and make sure any formal testing has a nice summative chunk.

The Universal Panacea? The number one shift in UK education I wish to see in my lifetime

This post is a response to the #blogsync topic for January suggested by Edutronic here:

In an ideal world, where money, policy and societal expectations were not a problem, what would be the one shift that you’d like to see in UK education?

Without a great deal of thought I know the my one-word answer straight away…


There is a distinct lack of trust in teachers in our modern society, and it’s stifling the profession. It’s a top-down propagation of distrust, too, long engrained in policy and only getting more problematic with every passing government.

The origins of distrust: Disempowering professionals

The erosion of trust in professionals by the government in the UK is old news, so I’ll keep my recap brief. It arguably started with Thatcher’s “New Public Management” restructuring of the public sector, and was certainly continued under the Blair premiership’s ‘new managerial’ agenda.  The resulting model of professionals has endured, and in the UK we now find ourselves with a government that is perpetuating, if not extending, such an agenda. This is highlighted in the Open Public Services white paper, which specifically promotes a decentralised approach to public service provision reminiscent of the 1980’s. Mr Cameron’s assertion that these changes “will be felt in every state school, hospital and prison, by every doctor, teacher, parent, patient and citizen” seems deaf to the loud complaints from many professional bodies who argue that these changes are detrimental to the services provided by professionals. A prime example of the response from the education sector can be seen in the Key Facts for NUT members on the new ballot which states that

This Government is more aggressive towards teachers than any we have known.

The neo-liberalisation of the professions has produced a climate of performativity, a mode of regulation whereby the documented performance of an individual or group serves as a measure of their productivity. Ball calls it “the translation of complex social processes and events into simple figures or categories of judgement”. On the surface these tools of monitoring and regulation are employed by the government in an attempt to increase transparency, accountability, and therefore public trust of professionals, but it has not worked out that way. Instead it has resulted in a disempowerment of teachers, as individual professional judgement has given way to a homogenised adherence to ‘standards’, and a strive to climb the league tables or be given the glory of an ‘outstanding’ label.

As a result we have a situation where schools and teachers are monitored through exam results and ‘snapshot’ OfSTED judgements against a set of national standards. This shows very little trust in autonomous professionalism, and little awareness of the role teachers can play in the local community.

What I feel is now required is the (re-)introduction of trust in teachers as autonomous professionals, resulting in a stronger connection with the local community and a move away from standardised central governance; a task made far more difficult now we have no local authority ‘middle-tier’ with which to collaborate.

Connecting locally, not nationally

So how can we, the teachers, fix this erosion of trust that is built into policy? I think the approach may be threefold.

  1. Accept the fact that we are street-level bureaucrats, and therefore ultimately in control of what happens in our classroom. I’m not saying that you should be like Judge Dredd, metering out education as and how you see fit, but also don’t be a slave to every top-down initiative. As Anderson says “somewhere in between it provides the freedom needed by teachers to function professionally and effectively in their classrooms”.
  2. Create a little ‘wriggle room‘; absolute standardisation leaves no space for local knowledge. All communities are not created equal, so “one-size-fits-all” will do no good. Again, as a professional, you decide how to apply policy to your schools and classes, so look for a little space for customisation when implementing directives.
  3. Lastly, know your community. It’s impossible to customise your practice without a sound knowledge of the community that you are customising it for. This isn’t just a case of looking at socio-economic data, get out there and see it first-hand. Take a staff field trip one evening to a local pub, or have a weekend jaunt to the local shopping centre. Talk to students about life outside the classroom, and where and how they spend their time. Engage with local businesses and community groups; can you get them to come into school and collaborate on a project? It’s all material that you can use to make sure you are doing the best by your students and their community.

I think it is time to take pride in being a teacher again. We work hard, strive to improve, and do the best that we can for the young minds that we encounter. Blogging is an ideal way to document this, and sharing these concerns and aims publicly means that we can be held personally accountable in far more transparent ways than performative league tables and snapshot inspections allow.

Trust is an earned and mutual commodity, let’s show that we both have it for and deserve it from our most important beneficiaries; the local community.