How do you know if your school’s approach to assessing pupils is effective in promoting learning, asks Jamie Scott

Every school has its assessment framework, but is it fit for purpose?

Schools use assessment every day, and it can be difficult to stop, step back and review the approach to ensure it is fit for purpose. To quote Professor Rob Coe at the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, “assessment is one of those things that you think you know until you start to really think hard about it”.

So, in the spirit of reflection and self-evaluation, here are five questions to ask of your school assessment framework to help determine its efficiency and effectiveness.

1. Are we using assessment to measure important aspects of the curriculum?

Assessment, pedagogy and curriculum are inextricably linked and, when the best of these are brought together well, they form the backbone of effective teaching. When assessment is sharply focused on the curriculum, and used as a tool of good pedagogy, teachers can maximise its value to improve the responsiveness of their teaching.

After all, how can we know what to teach tomorrow, if we do not know what has been understood today? Effective assessment needs to relate to the curriculum map, strategically challenging pupils to recall and strengthen the right pieces of learning and understanding.

2. Do our assessments measure the things we intend them to measure?

Form should always follow function in assessment. We must know what we want to measure and why in order to select the right tool to achieve our purpose. An assessment that is ideal to measure progress might be a poor choice for identifying strengths and weaknesses to inform, plan or adapt your next lesson. To assess better, we need to be explicit about purpose.

3. Are we assessing learning or performance of short-term memory?

Learning is the long-term retention of knowledge, understanding and skill, as well as the ability to transfer these to novel contexts. Therefore, teaching needs to promote learning which is retained and transferable, and assessment needs to be designed to gauge students’ long-term retention and transfer. Does your school’s assessment approach allow you to reliably demonstrate student knowledge and understanding at the point of initial assessment, and that they able to retrieve that knowledge and understanding six weeks, six months or a year later?

4. How can we be sure that progress is real and not just measurement error?

Measuring progress reliably is difficult. All forms of educational measurement contain a degree of error and so assessment is less precise than often it is perceived to be – whether that be national tests, classroom quizzes or teacher observation. It is a complex and time-consuming exercise to create an assessment that is sufficiently sensitive to be able to reliably measure progress in a relatively short space of time, so teachers need to understand error in their assessment measurements to make accurate judgements about progress.

5. Are you using assessment to create learning, and not just record the residue of it?

Tests have traditionally been used to measure learning. However, a growing body of research demonstrates that high-quality tests are better learning opportunities than repeated study. One example of such research is Roediger III, H. L., & Karpicke, J. D. (2006). Test-enhanced learning: Taking memory tests improves long-term retention. Psychological science, 17(3), 249-255.

The act of responding to questions thoughtfully strengthens a student’s learning; practice testing using well-crafted questions can actually promote learning, making assessment into more than simply a tool for recording data about learning.

Jamie Scott is from Evidence-Based Education

Evidence-Based Education are the creators of the Assessment Lead Programme – a framework of tools, resources and CPD to lead the improvement of assessment in school