A Fine Balance – Weighing the Costs of Assessment

Most of us recognise the need to make effective use of assessment when students return in September, whether in establishing starting points, promoting learning through retrieval or in identifying potential gaps. What’s not so clear is how we should assess and – mindful of the need to focus on integrating students after so long away – when assessments should take place.

Professor Rob Coe has written two excellent blogs on this subject for the EEF. The first focuses on three questions for school leaders to consider in relation to the purpose of assessments, and the second at the role of quality assessment in helping teachers understand how best to help pupils regain any learning lost during the period of school closure.

It would be unwise to offer any definitive answers to questions about assessment since every school has its own context. The profile of the student population, the quality and engagement with remote learning during the period of lockdown, the capacity and expertise of staff and the culture, pressures and practices of the school will all influence what assessment looks like.

As Rob Coe rightly points out, the first principle of effective assessment is to establish purpose. What is this assessment intended to achieve? What is the point of asking students to sit these exams at this moment in time? But even once any purpose has been agreed, there are still choices to be made. These choices can be seen as a series of trade-offs. If you want to do X, it will mean you can’t do Y, or if you do Y that will have a knock on effect for Z.

These trade offs relate to pretty much all assessment decisions, including timing, form and use. For every decision you take as a teacher, head of department or a school leader, there will inevitably be some kind consequence for students and/or staff. If, however, we are clear about the purpose of any assessment and understand the trade offs involved, we should be able to make better decisions for the good of all concerned.

To understand what we mean by trade offs let’s look at a couple of examples that schools might be thinking about come September. Probably the most likely is some kind of assessment for exam groups to help identify gaps in learning and direct limited resources. Whilst the learning of all students is valued, there is understandable concern for those fast approaching examinations.

Putting aside legitimate concerns about assessing students so soon after returning, there are a number of other significant pros and cons to consider. Chief amongst these is whether the price involved in getting accurate information about student learning is worth the effort and potential undesirable consequence. Some of these trade offs are crudely depicted in the table below.

Variable inferencesMore accurate inferences
Less markingIncreased marking
Little moderationGreater moderation 
Shorter testsLonger tests
Weaker itemsStronger items
Different test conditions Standardised conditions
Curriculum variationCurriculum alignment 

After thinking through the implications, a school might decide that there just isn’t enough time, expertise or infrastructure available (don’t forget, it will be difficult to run internal exams) to warrant such large scale summative assessment. They might decide instead to lower the stakes and focus instead on developing formative assessment practice – in other words, assessment that facilitates students’ learning.

Even here, though, there are potential issues. Assessment that drives student learning sounds like the right thing to do – and it probably is – but as with summative assessment, it can be hard to do well, particularly in classrooms where movement is restricted and touching papers and books is going to be problematic. Some of the main differences between high quality purposeful formative assessment and ineffective practices are outlined below.

Sound knowledge of learning progressionsCurriculum incoherence or variation
Confidence to respond to diagnostic dataReliance on pre-prepared resourcing
Well designed tasks and questionsTasks that go through the motions
Time and tasks for learners to improveTokenary time to work on improvements
Students as instructional resourcesStudents as passive recipients 
Spaces that enable efficient data collectionRestrictions on teacher movement

In both examples, establishing purpose, whilst important, is not the end of the decision-making process. Listing the potential trade-offs involved with a proposed assessment – workload, accuracy, logistics, etc. – can be a helpful way of evaluating whether those assessments are right to run or not. A particular assessment may be well intentioned but if it cannot be actioned properly, or if it compromises other things of value, then it is probably not worth doing.

Purpose may well be the starting point when we think about assessment, but it isn’t necessarily where we end up. Any assessment involves a trade off and it is up to us as teachers and leaders to understand the full implications of our decisions before we act.

If you are interested in learning more about the Role of Assessment in Supporting Lost Learning, Greenshaw Research School are running a free webinar tomorrow from 3.00-4.00pm with Professor Rob Coe (EBE and EEF).

You can still sign up here:

Published by Phil Stock

Deputy Headteacher, Teaching, learning and assessment. Interested in education, spending time with my family and running - all views are my own. @joeybagstock

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