Assessment: How should we be evaluating our children’s education?


“Students can escape bad teaching, but they can’t escape bad assessment” – David Bou

To ‘assess’, is defined in the oxford dictionary as “ To evaluate or estimate the nature, ability or quality of”. So when assessing our children, we are evaluating or estimating the nature, ablility of quality of their learning. There are many different forms of assessment but the two most commonly used in our classrooms are summative and formative.

Formative assessment is educational measurement that is used to inform the teaching and learning process. Ideally, both the teacher and the student will gain information from the assessment and use it collaboratively to plan future learning activities. The important thing in formative assessment is to gain as much information as possible in respect of what the student has achieved, what has not been achieved, and what the student requires to best facilitate further progress.

A good teacher practices formative assessment constantly on an informal basis through classroom observation and interaction. At its most informal level, formative assessment can be a conversation between a teacher and a student. As this type of assessment is low stakes, there is less need to establish processes to ensure the reliability of the assessment.

Summative assessment is measuring the outcome of an educational programme for the students who participated in that programme; that is, what skills and knowledge, relevant to the programme, do they have at the conclusion. Although it is desirable to use the results to inform further learning, for example, results from end-of-year assessment are used to inform programmes for the following year, it is typically the results of the assessment that are the primary focus of attention.

Summative assessment is typically used for credentialing (awarding of qualifications), selection (for jobs or university places, for example), or as accountability measures for educational providers. Because all of these purposes involve outcomes with, to a greater or lesser degree, high stakes for individuals or providers, the fairness of the assessment process is a very important concern.

Because summative assessments often have high stakes, they can have a blowback effect on teaching and learning; there can be pressure on the educator to narrow the focus of teaching to ensure good performance in the assessment. Students can similarly narrow their focus, or lose intrinsic, curiosity-driven motivation as they become concerned about the consequences of a poor assessment outcome.

Summative assessment is intended to summaries student achievement at a particular time, whereas formative assessment is intended to promote further improvement of student attainment (Crooks, 2001).

Formative and summative assessment both have roles to play in a child’s education. The problem occurs when one is given complete emphasis over the other. This links to my previous blog in which children are being evaluated in blocks instead of as individuals. Formative assessment (assessment FOR learning) is affiliated with pupil’s growth, learning, progression, self evaluating, motivation and self esteem. Emphasis on summative assessment (assessment OF learning) can lead to increased pressure, low self esteem and increased extrinsic motivation to study. Although I believe formative assessment to be the most beneficial to pupil’s overall learning and success, I am not so naïve to see the positive side to summative assessment. When both combined effectively and adequately, they can have huge benefits to children’s education. Unfortunately all major priority lies with summative evaluation. The contrasts between the two forms of assessments is summarized in the below picture.


As emphasis and “value” lay deeply with summative assessment, children are much more inclined to put greater effort into these appraisals. This can lead to symptons like cramming, rote learning and “learning for the test” I myself got through most of my school exams by studying teachers “tips” (basically studying questions teachers say may come up on the test so that children will pass the exam) and cramming. This technique was beneficial as I usually achieved a good grade and most importantly my teachers and parents were happy, so I was happy. It was also extremely ludicrous as I usually forgot most of the information the following week.

While working in a secondary school in England, I was teaching a class of Year 10’s Science. There was one particular student, was by “normal standards” was a teacher’s nightmare. He was cheeky, defiant, never did his homework, was always late to class and rarley positivley contributed to the class. Yet when it came to any end of topic or final summative exams, he would get an A. So his final report/grade for his “learning” in that year was an A. I also had another pupil in the very same class, who was a joy to teach. He was exceptionally motivated, showed a keen interest in the subject, had a lovely demeanor and always did his homework. He could explain the most complex equations and sequences but when it came to written formal tests, he crumbled. His overall report/grade for his learning that year was a D. Is this a fair reflection of both pupil’s learning and education?

The argument for re-thinking assessment is not new, but while it has been debated for some time, there has been little done to act on this thinking. “The existing exam system is unable to distinguish between test performance and knowledge and does not lead to genuine progress“, according to a leading educationalist reported in the Times Education Supplement (TES)

What we need is a massive re-think, a revolution in our approach – and a new report titled “A Renassance in Assessment” authored by Sir Michael Barber and  Dr Peter Hill provides a thought provoking response. The report is critical of current testing regimes for focusing on a narrow set of low level skills. The authors criticize an over-reliance on grades that reveal little about what the student can do and call for “validated learning progressions” with efficient processes for collecting and analyzing data and easy-to-use assessment tools.

If a child ever asks, will this be on the test? …. We haven’t done our job – Unknown

While summative assessment is still leading the way in assessing our children, and will be for the foreseeable futher, here are a few tips to incorporate alternative techniques into the classroom.

Unique adaptations

There are non-traditional ways to use summative assessments to enhance the learning process. Many teachers find it useful to:

  • Create the test after the learning plan. Though it may seem obvious, the best evaluation covers the material the instructor and curriculum meant to emphasize. If, for instance, a teacher holds a final exam in literature to the constant standard of “Does this student read deeper into the text?” he or she will have crafted a summative assessment that stays on point with learning goals.
  • Offer different options. Standardized state and national tests have very little room for re-imagining. A classroom final, however, could be given as a visual/audio presentation, a long-form test, or an individual essay. By allowing students to explain the material in a medium they feel comfortable with, teachers get an accurate picture of their understanding.
  • Move it out of the classroom. Unfortunately, many students decide early on that they are not strong in academics. By making the final resemble a real-world application, much of the pressure and stigma is removed, along with the temptation to plagiarize. Have biology students identify animals in nature or at a preserve, or have business students create job descriptions and resumes. This style of assessment can cover a broad range of material, and more closely emulates performance reviews and projects in a career field.


“The one really competitive skill is the skill of being able to learn. It is the skill of being able not to give the right answer to questions about what you were taught in school, but to make the right response to situations that are outside the scope of what you were taught in school. We need to produce people who know how to act when they’re faced with situations for which they were not specifically prepared” – Seymour Papert

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