Assessment denotes planned and systematic activities to collect evidence of learning in order to make judgements about processes or results. Assessment may have different functions, and a distinction is often made between “decisions about next steps in learning and how to take them” (formative functions), or “to grade, certificate or record progress” (summative functions) (Harlen & Crick, 2002, p.1). Also, increasingly assessment has an accountability function. Standardised and large scale testing may be used for policy purposes, or to hold schools, principals and teachers accountable for results.

Questions for reflection

You may consider these dilemmas related to assessment

  1. Functionalism versus traits – Are we interested in behaviour (performance) or mental attributes?
  2. Cognitive versus sociocultural – Do we assess the individual, or take account of the social and cultural nature of performance? These issues have significant challenges for the field of assessment, as it currently stands. How do we assess the individual, working with artefacts, within groups and with wider forms of cultural capital?
  3. Positivism versus interpretivism – To what extent do we see assessment as an objective, scientific process, or as a subjective, social process?
  4. Realism versus postmodernism – Are the phenomena that we are assessing real properties of individuals, or are they social constructions? (see, 2014).

Questions for reflection on assessment:

You may wish to consider the quality of your school’s assessment practices by using these criteria:

The Assessment Reform Group (in the UK) has formulated 10 principles for assessment for learning.


The staff may discuss assessment practices in light of these questions:

To what extent do the schools practices

  • Build enthusiasm and engagement in students?
  • Help students become aware of and extend their strengths?
  • Help students overcome weaknesses?
  • Promote the students willingness to seek help and guidance?
  • Help students become aware of strong and weak aspects in their work?
  • Help students realise that effort is the road to achievement?
  • Help develop assessment as a tool for building a learning culture among students?

(Translated from Smith, K. (2009). Vurdering i et dalogperspectiv. I J. Frost (Ed.), Evaluering – I et dialogisk perspektiv (pp. 19 – 33), Oslo: Cappelen Akademisk Forlag.)

School self-review of assessment policy and practice


  1. Are our purposes clearly stated, and are our practices clearly related to those purposes?
  2. Do we have well considered, unambiguous principles (policy cornerstones) to guide practice?
  3. Is practice publicly reviewed against declared purposes and principles?
  4. Does our curriculum documentation provide the direct reference for what is assessed - and how it is assessed?
  5. Do we focus on “big picture” assessment rather than lists and lists of “small picture” objectives?
  6. What strength of reliability (consistency) and validity (usefulness) does our assessment information have?
  7. Do our assessment practices feed into ongoing teaching and learning, and identify student achievement and progress?
  8. Are our systems efficient and not unduly time consuming?
  9. Does our assessment recognise the underlying impermanence (fragility) of much assessment data?
  10. Do we recognise that all assessments are approximations (not absolutes) drawn from samples of what students can do in response to the nature of the task?


Currently, it is possible to distinguish at least two dominating trends when it comes to evaluation. One is the abundance of national testing programmes and the rise of supranational tests. In such testing schemes, whole populations or selections of populations are tested regularly. These assessment practices allow for comparisons over time, or between nations, regions, schools, and in some cases, classes within schools. While standardised testing often does not have a direct impact on students’ learning it is argued that it impacts on the discourse on learning and assessment (Ozga, 2012), and also that over time it affects what and how teachers teach. Sometimes national tests are designed to serve the double purpose of informing policy makers about the quality of education, as well as providing information to teachers, student and parents about individual the students’ achievements.

The other trend is formative assessment, for example assessment for learning, or embedded formative assessment. Such approaches have the improvement of learning as their prime objective:

“Practice in a classroom is formative to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers, to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have taken in the absence of the evidence that was elicited” (Black & Wiliam, 2009, p. 9).

Wiliam (2011) suggests that it is not sufficient that assessment defines gaps in the students’ learning. In addition, evidence must give directions that helps decide on instructional activities which may improve performance. Also, active involvement of the learners is a prerequisite for successful assessment for learning.  Although some assessment practices are considered more likely to improve learning, drawing a clear distinction between assessment of and for learning is problematic. Summative assessment may function formatively, while formative assessment may serve summative functions. Thus, there is a need to question how evidence is produced or the kind of information that is collected. But an equally important issue concerns the ways in which evidence is translated into action. Teachers need competence to assess the information provided and deep knowledge about their students, their subjects and pedagogy to be able to design proper learning trajectories for and with their students (Hargreaves, 2005; Dann, 2014).  

Relevance for leadership

Assessment is a key concern for school leaders for a number of reasons. First, there is a need to ensure that the legal aspects of student assessment are attended to. Students in many countries have a legal right to receive regular and fair evaluations of their efforts and achievements. Secondly, school leaders ensure that there is a good balance between accountability purposes and learning purposes in their schools’ practices. Thirdly, school leaders need to address the extent to which assessment covers the wider educational aims and objectives. Finally, school leadership needs to ascertain that staff has the necessary competence and set up arenas for discussion and development of shared understanding and vocabularies.


  • Harlen W. & Deakin Crick, R. (2002). A systematic review of the impact of summative assessment and tests on students' motivation for learning (EPPI-Centre Review, version 1.1*). In: Research Evidence in Education Library, 1. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education.
  • Hargreaves, E. (2005). Assessment for learning? Thinking outside the (black) box. Cambridge Journal of Education, 35(2), 213–224.
  • Dann, R. (2014). Assessment as learning: blurring the boundaries of assessment and learning for theory, policy and practice. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 21(2), 149–166.
  • Wiliam, D. (2011). What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37, 3–14.
  • Ozga, J. (2012). Governing knowledge: data, inspection and education policy in Europe. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 10(4), 439–455.
  • Black, P.J. & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21(1), 5–31.
  • Wiliam, D. (2011). What is assessment for learning? Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37(1), 3–14.


Additional resources:

  • The Classroom Experiment: Professor Dylan Wiliam takes over one Year 8 class to test simple ideas that he believes could improve the quality of education.
  • Crooks, T. (2011). Assessment for learning in the accountability era: New Zealand. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37(1), 71–77.
  • Hattie, J., & Timperley, H. (2007). The Power of Feedback. Review of  Educational Research, 77(1),  81–112.
  • Baird, J.-A., Hopfenbeck, T.N., Newton, P., Stobaty, G. & Steen-Utheim, A.T. (2014). Assessment and Learning: State of the Field Review. Oslo: Knowledge Center for Education. (
  • Bennett, R. E. (2009). A critical look at the meaning and basis of formative assessment. Education and Testing Services unpublished report ETS RM-09-06.