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 Education for all (home)

Section 8. Learning and Assessment

Concern about the quality of learning and of the learners’ progress points inevitably to the importance of assessment. But, as the Reviews argue, an assessment system, which is unguided by the aims of education which are spelt out in Section 2, impoverishes that learning.

Key points

  • The extent and the nature of the ‘high stakes’ assessment diminishes the quality of learning.
  • There is confusion between Assessment for Learning and Assessment for Accountability.

 The Problem with assessment

A major concern of both the Primary Review (ch.16) and the Nuffield Review (ch.5) was that of the influence of assessment upon the quality of learning. The TLRP for its part felt it necessary to ask the question: ‘Assessment in Schools: Fit for Purpose?’ (TLRP 11)

In addressing this question, the Reviews returned to the ‘Aims of Education’ and to the consequent argument for a ‘Wide Vision of Learning’. Certain kinds of assessment are appropriate for one kind of learning, but not for another. One would not assess the ability to ride a bicycle by asking for an essay on the skill of riding. As the Nuffield Review pointed out (p.81), quoting Stanton in reference to the difficulties in several recent curriculum reforms,

In each case there was an over engineered assessment regime that was unmanageable, hindered rather than supported learning and, by focusing on the measurement of outcomes, implied that the enabling of learning would be relatively unproblematic.(xxvi)

The Primary Review (p.314 sq) brings evidence to bear upon the deleterious effect of the assessment regime on teaching and learning, namely

  • the stressful pressure of the SATs (Standard Attainment Tests),
  • the narrowing of the curriculum because public testing gains dominance,
  • the creation of a sense of failure early in a child’s educational journey.

TLRP 6, which examines Challenge and Change in Further Education, points to the damaging effect students have suffered from the assessment regime.

An emphasis on target setting and achievement, regulated through outcome-based assessment and qualification system, has led to an impoverished curriculum for the majority of school-leavers and adults entering further education..

Therefore, how to assess learning without the quality of that learning being impoverished by the methods adopted was a concern common to TLRP and the Nuffield and Primary Reviews.
However, further words of caution are required. As is shown by TLRP 11, national tests need to be treated with extreme caution in terms both of their validity and reliability - in some tests some 30% of pupils could be misclassified

The purposes of assessment

Despite these problems, the importance of assessment was in no way doubted, but it needs to be clear about the very different purposes which assessment is meant to serve and which are spelt out in the different Reports and Reviews (see TLRP 11, NR p.80-82; CPR ch.16):

  • young people’s progress in learning – what they know and can do;
  • knowledge of their capacities to pursue further study at the university, say;
  • diagnosis of learning difficulties;
  • teacher effectiveness;
  • school accountability – and position in league tables;
  • young people’s performance and achievements relative to other young people;
  • selection for further study or training or employment

Hence, assessment serves different purposes and is directed at different audiences – teachers, learners, parents, employers, higher education admissions, those in the next phase of education and training. But, in addressing these different audiences and purposes, the Reviews (drawing on the work of the Assessment Reform Group(xxvii) distinguished between ‘assessment for learning’, ‘assessment for accountability’ and ‘assessment for selection’. 

  • Assessment for learning (AfL) aims at supporting both teacher and learner to progress by recognising what has been achieved, what more needs to be achieved, the learning difficulties to be overcome, and the key ideas to be focused on. A range of instruments and tests help, but crucial is the judgement of the teacher. Hence, the Reviews argued for greater weight to be attached to ‘teacher assessment’ both in the everyday improvement of learning and in the final summative account of a learner’s attainment and ability.
  • Assessment for accountability aims at providing ‘quality assurance’ to a wider audience. Parents, school or college governors, the wider community and Government need re-assurance that the teachers and their schools and colleges are doing a good job.
  • Assessment for selection aims at deciding which learners should progress to particular institutions or courses in those institutions – whether they be degrees or apprenticeships or employment. The difficulties here are pointed out by TLRP 11 and by Nuffield Review (p.80-82). Often what such selection needs is an assessment of personal qualities less easily measurable – sometimes referred to as ‘soft skills’ or ‘wider key skills’.

The following is an example of AfL where the educational aims are not easily measurable.
Reading and Central Berkshire Consortiums work with the awarding body, ASDAN, to introduce new ways of developing and assessing personal, learning and transferable skills in a range of Diplomas that involve activity based, work related tasks. These are designed to develop, reinforce and rehearse employability skills. Learners demonstrate to themselves and others that they are developing important work related skills


First, problems arise where the different purposes of assessment are conflated – e.g. where assessment for learning is used for assessment for accountability (or where assessment for accountability determines the nature of the assessment for learning). Both the Nuffield and Primary Reviews point out (NR p.73 and 81, CPR p.335) how that need not be the case, and how the Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) in the 1980s developed a system of randomised light sampling of performance whereby information about the health of education across the curriculum could be obtained without interfering with the process of teaching and learning.(xxviii)  

Second, greater emphasis should be given to teacher assessment, to the provision of feedback to learners and to their own participation in assessment.  ‘Assessment for learning’ should be seen as more than just a neat phrase – it is a crucial contribution to the improvement of standards.

Third, more emphasis should be placed upon the profile of learners’ achievement which match the broader aims of education outlined in Section 2 and the wider vision of learning in Section 5. Many young people are judged educational failures because pursuits in which they shine (or could shine if given the opportunity) do not get recognised in the system of assessment.

(xxvi) Stanton, G., 2008, Learning Matters: Making the 14-19 Reforms Work for Learners, London: CfBT Education Trust.

(xxvii) see Harlen, W.,  The Role of Teachers in Assessment for Learning, London: Assessment Reform Group, Nuffield Foundation

(xxviii) The Assessment of Performance Unit (APU) was the major research arm of the Department for Education and Science (DES) during the 1970s and 1980s. Its purpose was to survey school populations to identify levels of national capability. Surveys of English, Mathematics, Science and Modern Foreign Languages were undertaken on a rolling basis.


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