An introduction to assessment and classroom learning

|5 min read

Editor’s Note:

This is an updated version of a blog post originally published on February 14, 2019

When used properly, assessment can be a powerful tool to support improving learning outcomes. But it’s hard to find agreement on what ‘properly’ means.

When it comes to assessment and classroom learning, everyone has an opinion. The assessment approach and framework you choose will be scrutinised by colleagues, parents, leadership and external stakeholders.

If your first question about assessment is: where do I start? You’re in the right place.

This post covers two of the key conversations happening around assessment and classroom learning. It’s a starting point for your own discussions about the role of assessment and how it looks in the classroom day-to-day.

Assessment for Learning vs. Assessment for Accountability

So what exactly is Assessment for Learning? Here’s the short version: Assessment for Learning is used as a tool to support learning and improve learning outcomes.

Assessment for Learning is often used interchangeably with the term formative assessment, where evidence from assessment has a positive impact in the classroom and informs what happens next. Assessment for Learning is the kind of assessment that benefits the learner and it’s usually a recommended approach for teachers’ classroom practice.

But classrooms are full of another kind of assessment: Assessment for Accountability.

When assessing for accountability purposes, targets based on predefined metrics and numbers take centre stage. It can support improving learning outcomes but what’s printed on a pupil’s report is sometimes prioritised over other information that teachers can use to take positive action in their classroom.

We like to pretend Assessment for Accountability doesn’t happen. No one wants to think of six-year-olds taking tests just so that someone somewhere can have an impressive graph on their slideshow. Yet the reality is that most schools have to produce information that shows leadership or external stakeholders they’ve reached their targets.

Ideally, a school’s Assessment for Learning framework will produce their accountability metrics at the same time. But due to the nature of the reporting requirements and the fact that schools have limited resources (whether it’s time, staff or money), sometimes compromises must be made. It can be time consuming to build enough robust data just as a by-product of Assessment for Learning.

Guidance on how to balance the different demands can also be contradictory at best and harmful to learning at worst. Many schools have ended up overdoing their Assessment for Accountability ‘just in case’. Considering the stakes at play, this is understandable. In the whirlwind of changes, it’s difficult for educators to find the time to find out what really works when it comes to assessment. Which methods and practices actually improve learning outcomes? And do they satisfy the reporting requirements placed on schools — whether by inspectors or school and trust leadership?

It’s important to work with colleagues to make sure your assessment and classroom learning framework supports teaching and learning and that the reporting requirements are a tight match to what is required — nothing more.

Formative vs. Summative Assessment

Experience suggests that you should always check what the person you’re talking with actually means when they say formative and summative assessment. Although — fair warning — the answer can lead to further confusion. The two are often presented as opposite approaches to assessment, and people can vehemently defend one and berate the other. It can also turn out that a summative test format and the formative use of assessment evidence get mixed up.

For the purposes of this blog, let’s agree that formative assessment is assessment that informs future learning, i.e. it’s Assessment for Learning, and answers the question: where are the pupils in their learning and, knowing this, what should be done next in teaching and learning? Formative assessment can take many forms from teacher observations to tests, and contain data in the form of numbers, descriptions, comments, checklists and so on.

Summative assessment sums up what has been learned so far. It asks the question: have the pupils learned or mastered what has been taught? This often brings to mind quizzes and tests and numerical data, but can take many forms depending on methods of assessment. Summative assessment is often seen as a tool for Assessment for Accountability.

But summative assessment information can and should be put to formative use: the findings from an exit paper inform what happens in the next lesson; SATs scores can be used to inform how teaching and learning is carried out the following school year, whether for pupils who took the test or for the new cohort of Y2 or Y6 pupils. Summative assessment can be a robust and useful way of Assessment for Learning — as long as the data is put to work in the classroom.

To distinguish between daily checkpoints and continuous observations, and the more formal objective testing, would it be better to simply talk about assessment of long-term learning and assessment of short-term learning — whatever methods are used and whichever kind of data is produced? In any case, the conversation around formative and summative assessment is sure to continue.

It’s crucial to agree on a common vocabulary and a common approach for your practice and school assessment framework, so that you and your colleagues can start the conversation and can engage in it together.

Over the next couple of weeks our blog posts will be focussing on assessment and what it can do for your school. If you’d like to discuss assessment with our Education Consultants, email us at We’d love to hear from you.

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