Assessment article

I have just had an article published in the International Teacher magazine. It is not really particularly new, and is more of an edit of the assessment pages on this site. However if you want to read it, it is here.

It is no longer available on the site, so I have added it here.


Is there any topic in education that exercised more chapters in books, more conferences and workshops and more column inches in the papers than assessment? How we do it, what it is for and the validity of what it shows us are all keenly debated. At one end we have the interpretation of results:  “Trend for grades to increase shows steady dumbing down of educational standards” or “Trend for grades to increase shows improved teacher training.” Take your pick. The interpretation depends more on your preconceptions than the numbers. At the other end assessment is not about measuring at all. It is formative and relies on feedback to students. How do we make sense of this forest of meanings for assessment, and the jungle of opinions about how it should be done?

We are guilty, in schools, of creating a very artificial environment for our children. This happens in many ways, from uniform to bells, in grouping by age or by ability. None of these things happen much to most people in adult life, or in childhood outside school. Nowhere is this more true than in the realm of assessment. You would be right, at this point, to turn the tables on me and ask what I mean by assessment, but I will refuse to take the bait. I will use various examples where the word is used to define a certain practice, but the definition will elude us for a while. In the end, perhaps we can get rid of such a confusing term altogether.

A wonderful example of assessment comes from Mary Poppins. I am not necessarily recommending you see the musical but near the beginning Mary, the new Nanny, meets the children for the first time. She takes tape measure from her bag and holds it up against the boy and reads “A noisy, mischievous, troublesome little boy.” She then does the same to the girl, which reads “Thoughtless, short-tempered and untidy”. When it is put against Mary, it reads “Practically perfect in every way.”

We may laugh at the magical properties of the tape measure, but are we so far away from that when we use numerical evidence as a basis for a discussion of a child’s learning? For many teachers it is a short step to using the same data to justify conclusions about their personality. Perhaps these are the teachers who would like the students to think they are practically perfect in every way.

Let’s get back to the real world outside school. We know that most people in most jobs are rarely, if ever, examined or tested, certainly not on a weekly or even daily basis. We also know that most of these people are not regularly graded with averages calculated to see how they are progressing. Yes, there are many cases where sales figures and production targets are used to assess an employee’s worth or even salary, but that is not the same thing. To see why not we need to look more deeply at what assessment is.




Assessment is essentially reductionist and distant.

Look at this picture. How do we think the artist might have arrived at this piece of work?

Hong Kong Skyline – Joyce Hadiwibawa


Details from Hong Kong Skyline – Joyce Hadiwibawa

Details from Hong Kong Skyline – Joyce Hadiwibawa

I have seen the sketches and photographs that the artist worked on leading up to this painting of a fictional skyline. But there is more than just the artwork. This painting comments on political and social issues of the day. At the time of painting there was a lot of discussion about illegal structures being added to buildings in Hong Kong. Many of these were on roofs as the details show. The two candidates for the post of Chief Executive Officer, the effective leader of of Hong Kong, were both accused of creating illegal extensions to their homes.

The question is how do we assess this work of art and what value does assessment have? For any piece of work, the general pattern goes something like this.

  1. The teacher discusses the idea of the work with the student
  2. The teacher comments on the sketches and research as the student progresses.
  3. The teacher gives formative feedback to help the student progress with the work.
  4. Once the work is complete, the teacher comments on the work, giving suggestions how the student can progress with the next piece.
  5. The student reflects on what they have done and what they have learned.
  6. The teacher assigns a grade to the work. This may be a number or a letter. It may be related to a rubric, or a set of criteria.
  7. The student judges the success of their own work by the grade that they have got.
  8. Parents see the grade and congratulate or comment to the student. Sometimes they see the work.
  9. The grade goes into a calculation of another number or grade that includes other pieces of work.
  10. This term grade or course grade is viewed by parents, colleges, universities or other relevant outside

Now, how much of this is actually assessment is rather open to different points of view. The purist traditional teacher will say that assessment means that you take a piece of student work and assess it’s value by giving it a mark or a grade. Anything else is feedback or discussion. Those brought up in the era of formative assessment will want to include all of the steps as being part of the assessment process.

Semantics aside, the point I am trying to make is that each step takes us further away from the student and their piece of work. Each step reduces the piece of work first to discussion, then to a comment, then to a reflection, then to a number, then to a component of another number. This is why the process of assessment is essentially both distant from the work and a reduction of it.

What works for adults works for children

We would never consider assessing work that is done by adults in this way. To take the Art example again, imagine going to one of the great galleries and seeing a great piece of work. When I go to the Raina Sofia Museum in Madrid and stand in front of Picasso’s Guernica, I can scan the work and soak in its majesty. The idea that a comment from someone, however erudite the critic, could stand in for the work is ludicrous. To go even further, any suggestion that I should reduce this piece of Art to a number is patently ridiculous. Yet we do it for students! All the time!

This is just as true in other domains. Einstein’s work on relativity is completely useless if we just comment on how good it is, or give it a grade. We need the work itself to be able to send rockets to distant planets or design a GPS system. We cannot use the assessment of the work in place of the work. Only in school do we say to a student or a parent or a university that a student is working at a numerical level and expect that to stand in place of the actual work.

Even as teachers we are not normally assessed by reduction to numbers. It is true that some systems do this, but there is no evidence that I have seen that indicates this helps teachers improve their practice at all. As we have seen in the previous chapter, the discussion about our work is helpful as it helps us reflect but an assessment, in the pure sense, doesn’t.

Why can we not apply adult behaviour to students?

This may seem as an argument for formative assessment over summative assessment, but I think we can go further than this.


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