Handle with Care! Untangling problems with classroom assessment.

This post is about a frustrating aspect of my teaching practice from this term, which was first brought on by a few educational doubts that I talk about here. I draw on Christodoulou (2017) and Wiliam and Black’s (1996) work. In subsequent posts, I will draw on others to show the solutions I have tried to come to….

Before I begin to outline my frustration with assessing the learning of my pupils, and assessing whether they learnt anything from my lessons this term, I think it’s worth making a preliminary distinction between summative and formative assessment to lay some sort of groundwork for this discussion. In their paper, ‘Meanings and Consequences’, Wiliam and Black (1996) make a distinction between the purposes of these two forms of assessment. Summative assessment aims to produce a shared meaning between pupils, classes, schools, local authorities and so on. Formative assessment has no bearing on other classes, schools or local authorities – it is solely aimed at providing the teacher and pupil with information about learning, which will in turn result in some sort of consequence. When we assess with summative purposes, we judge the amount of student learning over a year or course, in order to give them a grade or status. In addition, since summative assessment should always have a shared meaning, we may also compare our findings across classes, key stages or to previous results. Beyond a school, we may be able to compare summative judgements with other schools, local authorities or nations.

If meanings are valid and reliable from other contexts, summative assessment can provide teachers, schools and local authorities with information about pupil achievement. With this information, which is hopefully valid and reliable, the stakeholders and future employers who are interested in a students’ education can make inferences about their achievement throughout their education.

By contrast, formative assessment provides valuable opportunities for teachers and pupils to make learning visible, by giving information about pupil learning. Because of this information, teachers can be provided with clear pictures of pupil achievement up to date. With this information they can change the course of classroom learning by moving learning on quicker, slowing it down or recapping and re-teaching misconceptions etc.

Like Christodolou (2017) claims, it is highly possible to use assessments designed for a summative purpose and use them for formative information. For example, twenty SATs questions from previous years assessing a range of national curriculum outcomes could give a summative judgment across two year 6 classes and also provide the teachers with useful information about gaps in learning and areas of strength in their pupils (formative judgements).

However, it is not always as simple as the above example to distinguish between summative and formative assessment information. For example, if a teacher models a standard written method for addition in maths on the board, then turns round to see several pupils with confused and troubled faces, they are provided with instant information about the current level of confidence in the skill being taught. This formative information might then lead the teacher to ask what pupils don’t understand, providing them with even more formative information, which they then might proceed to act upon in a way that suits their pupils needs. If the same teacher was asked to grade whether the pupils had achieved the objective based on the ‘confused and troubled faces’ they saw once they had modelled an example, they would struggle to provide any summative meaning beyond ‘they found that hard’. This causes the same problem during fsummative assessments. Like Christodolou (2017) writes: ‘knowing a pupil got a grade ‘A’ on a test is an accurate shared meaning, but it provides a teacher with relatively little information that will change their teaching’ (p.57).

Despite the definitions outlined above, it is clear just from these small examples, that it can at times, particularly for busy teachers, be challenging to validly and reliably make judgments about the quality of their pupils learning. For Wiliam and Black (1996) they see summative and formative assessment as two ends of a continuum. This is evident when discussing the ‘repurposing’ of previous exam papers that were intended for summative meanings to provide formative information. I doubt that there is one Year 5 or 6 teacher in the country who hasn’t photocopied past SATs papers and gone through them with their pupils in recent years to prepare them for their exams. Surely they can be justified in doing this?

I am not convinced and think we ought to handle this area with care. Let me explain using a personal example. Recently, I taught a unit on interpreting negative numbers to my Year 5 class. I designed all of my activities around meeting the national curriculum objective. We spent about four days moving from fluency, to reasoning and problem solving related to the knowledge and skills required to fulfil this objective. As an extra enrichment activity and formative assessment information for me, I decided to give them a fifteen-minute test of previous SATs questions on negative numbers. When I marked the questions, I realised the SATs questions I had chosen used negative numbers that were embedded in highly complex contexts (diagonal number lines with algebraic notation, two step worded problems and two way tables). At this early stage in the academic year, we hadn’t covered any of the complex contexts that the negative numbers were embedded within; making the testing of my pupils understanding of negative numbers very difficult[i].

I had ‘repurposed’ a summative assessment in a way that I thought would provide formative information so I could make my teaching specific to the needs of my pupils. I was entirely wrong. I had neglected the original intention of SATs tests in the first place. SATs are designed to give a snapshot of the achievement of pupils across key stage 2. They are not designed to test every curriculum objective that has been covered since Year 3. For this reason, like I experienced, several questions ‘smuggle in’ a whole host of objectives to provide a better summative judgment. They provide very limited formative information for teachers if they are not used correctly. Like Michael Fordham says here, I was unable to fully understand my pupils learning and I therefore couldn’t develop their knowledge base.

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Note: This is an example of a question that fell under the heading of negative numbers. The negative numbers referred to here are found in the context of a line graph that uses two quadrants. More than this, the focus of the question is on using this knowledge in a subtraction calculation as part of interpreting a line graph. Complex stuff after only teaching negative numbers in context! It definitely isn’t the right sort of question to glean any sort of formative assessment information about negative numbers…

After this frustrating ordeal, I realised what Wiliam and Black wrote to be very true in my own personal experience: “it would be very difficult to argue that responses to an ‘off-the-cuff’ question to a class in the middle of an episode of teaching to have any significance beyond the immediate context”. The same works for the opposite end of the assessment continuum: “conversely, evidence elicited at the end of teaching can have very little formative influence on the students assessed” (p.546).

With the example above, I had tried to find some sort of balance, or common ground between summative and formative assessment, but once again I realised what Wiliam and Black wrote to be true: “finding this (assessment) common ground will be difficult, since the issues are complex” (p.546).

Despite my inadequacies and frustrations, over the past few weeks I have been trying to battle with these everyday problems with assessment to find best possible solutions to have the most impact on my pupils’ learning. More to come.



[i] At this point it might be easy to just say: ‘why didn’t you just choose questions from the SATs papers that just tested pupils’ understanding of negative numbers?’ To answer this as simply as possible: without me spending hours creating my own, there wasn’t any available online. More than this, one of the purposes of giving my pupils a SATs style test was for me to see whether they would be exam ready, as well as whether they had mastered the content.



Christodoulou, D. (2017) Making Good Progress? Oxford: OUP

Wiliam, D. and Black, P., 1996. ‘Meanings and Consequences: a basis for distinguishing formative and summative functions of assessment?’ British Educational Research Journal, 22(5), pp.537-548

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