Pedagogy Focus: Assessment

In the latest instalment of Pedagogy Focus, we look the concept of assessment and the various different approaches that can be taken

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Scottish teachers have warned that, in many cases, National 4 studies fail to properly prepare students to progress to National 5

What do we mean by assessment?

Assessment refers to a variety of methods used in schools to measure and evaluate student progress. It involves systematically documenting and analysing data to inform future planning and progression; assessment can be used to guide teachers in terms of the support, extension and intervention they offer their students. 

Assessment also provides a way of measuring student outcomes relative to expected progress, meaning that schools can set future targets, and governments can monitor and assess school performance.   

What are the different types of assessment?

Assessment comes in many forms and the approach used to measure pupil progress will differ depending on the reason for the assessment taking place. 

Formative and summative assessment

These are the two main types of assessment, in which students demonstrate knowledge and understanding either in an informal and continuous way (formative) or show what has been learned at the end of a set period of time or unit of study (summative). 

Often referred to as assessment for learning, formative assessment is day-to-day ongoing assessment that can be used to gauge what has been learned. 

As a result, planning can be adjusted, and interventions put in place if necessary. 

Summative assessment, on the other hand, is focused on a final assessment of what has been learned. There is usually a mark or grade to be reported, which can then be shared with pupils, staff and parents/carers.

Baseline assessment

This is used to assess what pupils can do before a unit or topic begins. It provides teachers with a starting point for learning, which is vital for measuring pupil progress. 

Baseline assessments can also help to identify misconceptions and gaps in pupil knowledge, as well as highlighting skills that pupils already have.

Internal and external assessment

Assessments are usually either internally created and marked by the school, or set externally by an awarding or governing body. 

Internal assessments provide data that can be used in-house to further inform planning and intervention, while external assessments (marked by third-party examiners) result in final gradings for pupils and schools.    

What are the debates around assessment?

It is generally agreed that assessment is a necessary and integral part of the education process; schools and teachers need to know whether or not pupils are actually learning and developing. 

However, there are many debates that focus on how assessment is used, how frequently students should be formally assessed, and the extent to which the assessment process is actually beneficial to students and teachers.

Some key points of discussion are:

  • How teacher accountability and "teaching to the test" can hinder the learning that takes place in the classroom.

    The emphasis on student outcomes and results for teachers (and students) can often undermine the assessment process as teachers teach “tricks” for passing and may even manipulate results of internal assessments to make progress appear greater than it is. 

    This leads to questions surrounding the reliability of data and whether results are, in fact, accurate reflections of the learning taking place. 
  • Concerns surrounding the appropriateness and fairness of the examination process. It is suggested that a one-size-fits-all approach to assessment favours pupils from higher socio-economic backgrounds. 

    In terms of design and content, the traditional, formal examination might disadvantage pupils who may not have had the same experiences or support, and are therefore (potentially) unable to access the materials in the same way as other pupils.
  • Worries over the stress the assessment process and sitting formal exams (internally and externally, from an early age) causes pupils and teachers.  

    The pressure to perform and meet targets or achieve certain grades is thought to be responsible for much of the anxiety felt and, as initiatives and national strategies continuously change, staff and students find the goal posts constantly moving and the expectation level greater.
  • Questions surrounding the usefulness of marking and assessment in student books; much research into this area suggests that the majority of written feedback has little impact on the overall progress made. 

    In order for marking to be truly effective, students need to engage with teacher comments and actively respond to targets. 

    With the pressure to cover large amounts of content during lessons, teachers (and students) often feel uneasy about taking time to go over previous work, meaning important feedback gets lost or forgotten and gaps in skills and knowledge remain unaddressed.

Further reading

Department for Education information on curriculum and assessment: National curriculum and assessment from September 2014: information for school

Cambridge Assessment International Education training publication: Getting Started with Assessment for Learning.

Professor Mary James’ commentary on assessment: Assessment in Schools: Fit for purpose?


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