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. Here I discuss the types of assessment using examples from the English secondary system.

Summative assessment (end of year, or 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 of 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 definition between them and the way the work is used is the only real guide to whether a piece of work is summative or formative. Both methods of assessing pupils can be used in any activity.

Formative assessment

AFL is 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 quicker if the group understand the work or to be slowed down if pupils are struggling. AFL assessment 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 to use, for example, 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 ae often used where the pupils are giving 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 plenaries of every lesson (final 5 or 10 minutes of the lesson, giving the pupils a finishing point and allowing them to leave the lesson knowing what they have learnt that lesson). 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 following lesson 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

At this point it is useful to look at this very valuable resources in a classroom. Essentially it requires giving each pupil 3 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 TA 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 3 little pieces of coloured card!

Assessment during the lesson

Assessment is also carried out during the lesson while pupils are doing written work or where 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. Assessment in this way 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. This way of assessing 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 3 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 more confidence builds and resources grow under your belt it becomes much easier to do so and 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 of written work includes marking of 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 does benefit all pupils and can improve their learning. However this is especially true of low achieving pupils. Pupils who do struggle can become disheartened and unwilling to learn when they receive constant low marks and grades, with no appreciation of how much they have achieved and how they can improve. However formative assessment allows teachers to pick up on the pupil’s strengths and build on them. This can boost the self confidence of all pupils but especially low achievers. This can result in low achievers still being willing to try and to learn. Giving pupils grades and marks only can cause problems with underachievers. However the use of feedback and advice can help pupils to improve as they know how to. The use of feedback and advice as a learning function is very much underemphasized. Feedback given to pupils should follow 3 rules. Firstly it should include qualities of the work, thus giving positive feedback. Secondly the feedback should include a way the pupil can improve their work. This gives them information and help on how to improve their mark next time rather than just giving them a bad 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 axis are equal gaps, i.e. 10, 20, 30 rather than 10,14,16,24.

With this example the pupils knows what to carry on doing next time and what to change next time. They are also given a model 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 do need to know their objectives and where each lesson fits into a sequence for this to work.

Record keeping is vital for 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 pupil. The mark book should show records of the assessments carried out with any group. On top of what is in this mark book is assessment in lessons such as quick quizzes and match up activities which are out of 5. Pupils can easily show the teacher their marks from these activities with their fingers. These methods have been 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 on a spreadsheet the school hold for all pupils.

Summative assessment

Summative assessment is used at the end of a teaching period, whether the end of a module or the end of a school year. The purpose of summative assessment is to find out how much information a pupil has retained in a given time period. In most cases these tests and exams aren’t used to help pupils but to inform teachers of a pupil’s progress. Summative assessment forms the basis of external examinations such as SATs and GCSE exams. In this format pupils only receive levels or grades back and no 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 would be marked against before completing the task. This type of level assessed tasks are given a national curriculum level. This type of 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 have in a test.

The pupils are then given a test at the end of the module to assess how well pupils have learnt the information taught in that module. This usually gives a better idea of the progress a pupil has 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 both 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 2 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 to remember less 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 before.

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.

Summative assessment has to assess all pupils against a common standard. This is to make sure it is fair and treats all pupils the same. Summative assessment also provides an overall mark only. The assessment is therefore not useful for identifying which areas a pupil is good at and which area they need to improve.

Summative assessment is used in many schools to help set pupils as they progress through the school. The data is also used to get an overall idea of how well pupils 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 assessment has differing roles in a classroom but both are vital for the successful teaching of pupils. The two types of assessment 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 your 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 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, 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 are distant 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 I would encourage any parent to approach the teachers – We are usually happy to discuss their progress with you!

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