Assessment is part of the learning journey. And as with most journeys, it helps to know where you’re going, why you want to go there and how you plan to get there. It’s also important to know where you are before you begin the journey!
What is assessment?
Many people assume that ‘assessment’ means taking a test, but assessment is broader than that. There are two main types: summative and formative (also referred to as assessment for learning). It is likely that both happen at some level in most classrooms.
The key to good assessment practice is to understand what each method contributes and to build your practice to maximise the effectiveness of each. Summative assessment sums up what a pupil has achieved at the end of a period of time, relative to the learning aims and the relevant national standards. The period of time may vary, depending on what the teacher wants to find out. There may be an assessment at the end of a topic, at the end of a term or half-term, at the end of a
year or, as in the case of the national curriculum tests, at the end of a key stage. A summative assessment may be a written test, an observation, a conversation or a task. It may be recorded in writing, through photographs or other visual media, or through an audio recording. Whichever medium is used, the assessment will show what has been achieved. Or, in terms of the metaphor with which we began, it will show the stage the pupil has reached in his or her journey. If the learning journey has been well planned, its end will coincide with the destination envisaged at the beginning. This is where formative assessment is useful. Formative assessment takes place during learning, allowing teachers and pupils to assess progress on the learning journey. You might think of it as stopping every so often to check the map. It begins with diagnostic assessment, indicating what is already known and what gaps may exist in skills or knowledge. If a teacher and pupil
understand what has been achieved to date, it is easier to plan the next steps. As the learning journey unfolds, further formative assessments indicate whether teaching plans need to be amended to reinforce or extend learning. As with summative assessment, formative assessments may be recorded in a variety of ways, or may not be recorded at all, except perhaps in the lesson plans drawn up to address the next steps indicated. More information about summative and formative assessments can be found in other leaflets in this series. The series includes a Glossary explaining some key assessment terms.
Getting started
There is no one ‘correct’ method of assessment, although there are guiding principles underpinning good practice. Some key points are listed below.
• Assessment methods should be fitted to the learning context and learners’ needs.
• Your school’s assessment policy should outline good practice, as well as expectations about when and how to assess (see Policy into practice).
• Familiarise yourself with the policy and its underlying principles. Your school’s assessment coordinator or assessment leader will be able to answer any questions you have.
• Ensure you understand the roles of other people involved in assessment and plan ways to make best use of them. They may include teachers, the assessment coordinator, heads of year/key stage, learning support assistants and the pupils themselves (see Self and peer assessment).
A key step in good assessment is to understand what you want to achieve in your teaching. Once this is clear, you can define your next steps. Most schools will expect teachers to set learning objectives (also known as targets) for pupils or with pupils. When setting objectives, decide what the success criteria will look like: in other words, how will you recognise that you have arrived at the correct destination? What will the pupil understand or be able to do that he/she couldn’t do or understand
before? Does success mean that a pupil understands fully/shows full competence, or does it mean that he/she shows the first glimmer of understanding/competence? These extremes, and the points between them where learning is being consolidated, are all stages on the learning journey, and the answers to these questions will vary across pupils and situations. The important thing is to consider what you want from the particular part of the journey that each pupil is taking.
It is important to ensure that assessment activities are valid: that is, that they assess what is intended. Bear the following in mind.
• Ask yourself whether a given activity truly probes understanding of the relevant aspect of the curriculum or gives the pupil a chance to demonstrate his/her skills.
• Consider whether a pupil could respond in a way that might suggest competence or understanding where none really exists (for example, by mimicking a response from another pupil or using key phrases without understanding).
• Develop questioning techniques or activity outlines that encourage expanded responses so you can evaluate the true extent of pupils’ achievement or understanding.
• You may need to adapt assessment methods when assessing pupils with special educational needs or English as an additional language, but the same underlying principles of assessment apply.
• Some pupils find it hard to record their achievements in writing. This doesn’t mean you can’t assess. It just means that you may need to use other media – audio, visual or observational. Remember that good practice in assessing pupils with particular needs can also benefit other pupils, so consider


Assessment Research

The material on this site is based on the research findings, in particular, of Professors Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. In 1998, Professors Black and Wiliam published Inside the Black Box, a summary of the findings of a literature review which had explored research into the role played by formative assessment in improving student achievement.

The full article, on which the above summary is based, can be found in the following publication:

  • Black, P & Wiliam, D 1998, ‘Assessment and Classroom Learning’, Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, March, vol 5, no 1, pp 7-74.

The ten research-based principles of Assessment for Learning provide further information. They can be viewed under ‘Publications’ on the website of the Assessment Reform Group:

The Basics of Assessment for Learning (AfL)

Dylan William Assessment for Learning Lecture

Dr Dylan Wiliam The Secret of Effective Feedback

Visible Learning - An Interview with Dr. John Hattie

John Hattie Learning Intentions and Success Criteria



The Department for Education (England) uses standardised tests to make comparative judgements of school progress each year.  These tests or SATs as they are known can be viewed here.  Read more