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Assessment in Schools

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Assessment forms an important part of any teacher's job regardless of the type of school or the country in which they teach. This Entry discusses two types of assessment, Formative Assessment and Summative Assessment, using examples from the English secondary system.

Summative assessment, carried out at the end of the academic year or at the end of a topic, is essential for all pupils and forms the basis of external exams. Formative assessment – continual assessment with feedback to pupils – on the other hand is classroom-based but has a great importance in the teaching of pupils. This type of assessment is often referred to as Assessment For Learning or AFL. Both types of assessment have a purpose in teaching despite their differing roles. There isn't always a clear distinction between them and the way the work is used is the only real guide to whether it is summative or formative. Both methods of assessment can be used in any activity.

Formative Assessment

Formative Assessment (AFL) is the continuous assessment of pupils to determine their current position. This assessment becomes formative when it is used to adapt the teaching to meet students' needs. It is all about finding out what pupils already know and then teaching them based on this information. Formative assessment allows classes to be moved on more quickly if the group understands the work, or to be slowed down if pupils are struggling. AFL should be carried out for every pupil in every lesson though this is not necessarily always done. Initial assessment is also usually carried out in order to work out where the pupils are at the beginning. This is achieved through a lesson at the beginning of a topic or as starters each lesson. Starters are done in a variety of ways. Favourite starters are games or crosswords asking questions about the previous lesson. This helps connect lessons and for pupils to make connections. As a starter at the beginning of a topic wordsearchs are often used where the pupils are given the definitions of key words and they have to work out what the word is and then find it. This is usually a fun way to have assessment in the classroom.

Formative assessment is often carried out during the final 5 or 10 minutes of every lesson – known as plenaries – giving the pupils a finishing point and allowing them to leave the lesson knowing what they have learned from it. Pupils are given clear learning objectives at the beginning of the lesson. These have to be measurable so that at the end of the lesson all pupils can be assessed against these objectives. Assessment in this part of the lesson allows teachers to judge whether pupils have understood the material and grasped the learning objectives. If pupils have managed to do so then the next lesson can move them onwards. If however the opposite is true, this assessment allows the teacher to pick up on the areas where pupils haven't met the learning objectives. Plenaries, like starters, take many different forms depending on the lesson taught. Games and quizzes, either using cards the pupils can hold up or written answers, require more time than a question and answer session but are more likely to interest the class.

Traffic Light Cards

Traffic light cards are a very valuable resource in a classroom. Essentially it requires giving each pupil three little cards – one red, one yellow and one green – fastened together somehow (for example in resealable plastic bags) for the ease of handing out. These cards are used in different ways. The easiest is to use them to answer multiple choice quizzes. When lesson objectives are given, colour-coded success criteria are often given – these tell the pupils what they need to do to achieve the different levels or grades. At the end of the lesson the pupils can self-assess where they are or what they have achieved by displaying the card that matches the criteria.

A favourite way of using these cards is during written work in the classroom. Pupils start with the green card on top. If they become stuck on a question they change the card to yellow. If they are stuck on the remaining questions and can't do anything else they display the red card. This technique works well for small needy classes which often have the additional TA1 support. The adults can prioritise helping pupils depending on the colour of card displayed. For a group which can't help but shout "Miss" continually until you arrive to help, despite only wanting to know if they should write on the back of the paper or not, this technique can really save your sanity!

When I started teaching I didn't know how much I would come to love these three little pieces of coloured card!

Assessment During the Lesson

Assessment is also carried out during the lesson while pupils are doing written work or when there is a question and answer session. Assessment in this part of the lesson allows time for the lesson to be changed to focus more on the areas pupils are struggling with and less on the areas where pupils are excelling. Assessment in this way requires teachers to be flexible with their teaching and being willing to change their plans to suit the class. It allows a teacher to help pupils to achieve something in a lesson rather than the pupil walking away thinking they cannot complete the work set in the lesson. It also allows a teacher to identify pupils who are struggling without them needing to ask for help, which many pupils won't do if others are working around them. This however doesn't always identify pupils who need help so there is still a place for pupils to ask questions. Parents with children who are struggling are encouraged to get their children to speak to the teacher or to contact the school themselves.

Teachers are encouraged to adopt a three-part lesson structure – starter, main and plenary. However the style of using mini-plenaries and assessing thoughout the lesson is much more beneficial providing the teacher is willing to adapt their lesson plan. Many new teachers struggle with this idea, but as their confidence builds and resources grow, it becomes much easier to do so and is better for the pupils.

Interactive teaching and learning allows teachers to adapt their practice based on information about pupils' understanding and difficulties. This can take the form of observations, discussions and reading of written work. When this is used to modify teaching it is formative. Reading written work includes marking exercise books; when this is done with correct feedback it can be formative to allow both the teacher and the pupil to see what is being achieved and what needs to be improved on.

Formative assessment benefits all pupils and can improve their learning; this is especially true of under-achieving pupils. Pupils who struggle can become disheartened and unwilling to learn when they constantly receive low marks and grades, with no appreciation of how much they have achieved and how they can improve. Formative assessment allows teachers to pick up on the pupils' strengths and build on them. This can boost the self-confidence of all pupils but especially under-achievers, resulting in them still being willing to try and to learn. The practice of only providing pupils with grades and marks may cause problems with under-achievers. The use of feedback and advice can help these pupils to improve as they know how to; as a learning function this is very much underemphasised. Feedback given to pupils should follow three rules. Firstly it should include qualities of the work: positive criticism. Secondly the feedback should include a way in which the pupil can improve their work: constructive criticism. This gives them information and help in how to improve their mark next time, rather than just giving them a poor mark. Thirdly, feedback should never compare different pupils. An example of a comment on a graph might be:

You have plotted your points accurately and with the right equipment – well done! To improve this graph you need to ensure that your axes have equal gaps, e.g. 10, 20, 30 rather than 10, 14, 16, 24.

With this example the pupil knows they've done properly and what to carry on doing and what they need to improve in the future. They are also given a model, a structure, of how to do that.

Formative assessment is useful to pupils and they can do some assessment of themselves, when they know where they should be heading each lesson. This is where the benefit of learning objectives comes in. Self-assessment is a vital part of formative assessment. Pupils need to know their personal and class objectives, and where each lesson fits into a sequence in order for this to work successfully.

Record keeping is vital for any form of formative assessment. Without a constant record of how well pupils are doing it is difficult for a teacher to keep track of the progress for each individual pupil. The mark book should show records of the assessments carried out with any group. In addition to the assessments recorded in the mark book is assessment made during lessons such as quick quizzes and match-up activities scored 'out of five'. Pupils can easily show the teacher their marks for these activities with their fingers. These methods may be used to determine the next move in a lesson but don't form part of a mark book. Some of the records from a mark book are often recorded in the data that the school holds for all pupils.

Summative Assessment

Summative assessment is used at the end of a teaching period, whether at the end of a module or at the end of a school year. The purpose of this method of assessment is to find out how much information a pupil has retained in a given time period. In most cases these tests and exams are used to inform teachers of a pupil's progress. Summative assessment forms the basis of external examinations such as SATs2 and GCSE3 exams. In this format, pupils only receive levels or grades and no other feedback is provided.

Towards the end of a module pupils can be given a level-assessed task to complete. The pupils are provided with the level ladder which is used to mark the work. The pupils are therefore aware of what they will be marked against before completing the task. This type of level-assessed task is given a National Curriculum level4. This task is often done badly by pupils, even when it is marked and given back with improvements. Pupils often achieve a lower level than they would in a test.

Pupils are then given a test at the end of the module to assess how well they have learned the information taught in that module. This usually gives a better idea of the progress made so far.

Summative assessment module tests have been known to be used mid-teaching as formative assessment. If these results are used to affect the teaching of that module then they are formative. However in many cases these tests aren't used formatively and are therefore summative assessment. It is thought that this has arisen from the focus on summative assessment not only in assessment generally but also across the curriculum.

Traditionally, summative assessment was done at the end of the course, for example GCSE exams were taken at the end of two years. It is now becoming more common to break the information down into modules and test pupils at the end of each module. This is just an alternative method of summative assessment. With the introduction of modules exams, pupils often achieve higher GCSEs than in the old system especially with resit exams being offered to many pupils. The subject matter is not easier than the older system but the method assessment is easier for pupils – they have less to remember at any one time! In the UK this may be changing from September 2012 and exams reintroduced at the end of year 11 with no modules sat beforehand.

Summative assessment is designed to assess how much pupils know at the time of the examination. This is assessed as learning outcomes against a set of learning objectives. It has to assess all pupils against a common standard, to make sure it is fair and treats all pupils the same. It provides an overall mark only, and is therefore not useful for identifying which areas a pupil is good at and which areas they need to improve.

Summative assessment is used in many schools to help place pupils into teaching sets as they progress through the school. The data is also used to get an overall idea of how well they are performing. Many schools hold data called Fisher Family Trust data which predicts pupils' grades for GCSE, based on what they have achieved at the end of primary school and their social background. Usually end of modules test results are recorded and compared to this data. It is these predictions which are used to give the value-added scores for school league tables.

The data held on this spreadsheet can also help when talking about a pupil's progress at parents' evening or when writing reports for the pupils. Summative assessment is really important for communicating with parents as they want to know how well their child is doing, both in the class and compared to the target.


Formative and summative assessments have differing roles in a classroom but both are vital for successful teaching of pupils. They have different purposes but both have a common goal – to find out how much a pupil has learnt and how well they are doing in their lessons. Without assessment it would be impossible to determine what effect teaching is having on a pupil or how much they understand. It can sometimes seem as though assessment is over-emphasized in education but it has such a vital purpose that in many classrooms assessment is in actual fact underplayed.

Every school will have extensive assessment records of every pupil. Some of this is shared with parents, while other bits aren't, however a good teacher will have no problem with sitting down with a parent and sharing all the assessment data they have and discussing how that individual is doing in the subject. Many parents of secondary pupils live some distance from the school and it can be difficult for a teacher to contact every parent on the off chance they want to discuss their child in detail. However parents should be encouraged to approach teachers – they are usually happy to discuss their child's progress with them!

1Teaching Assistant.2Standard Assessment Tests.3General Certificate of Secondary Education.4The National Curriculum sets out the stages and core subjects that pupils are taught during their time at school. It incorporates a series of eight National Curriculum levels, covering the ages 5-14 years, which may be used to measure a pupil's progress compared to others of the same age across the country. The lowest is Level 1, which describes the achievements of pupils at around the age of five. The highest is Level 8, which is attained by the most able pupils at the age of 14.

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