Assessment creates a lot of debate, with strong opposition to the testing of Reception children and one headline declaring: ‘Testing has become like crack cocaine to the government’. Is there a difference between an assessment and a test?
The word ‘assess’ turned up in English about 550 years ago. It came to English from Old French and before that, from Latin. The English association between ‘tax’ and the word ‘assess’ reflects the meaning that the late Latin parent word held. But this Latin word was built on earlier roots.
Believe it or not the words size, assize, and assess all run back to a word root meaning “sit.”
A test or quiz measures what someone knows, or has learned. An assessment is the process of documenting knowledge, skills, attitudes and beliefs, usually in measurable terms. The goal of assessment is to make improvements, as opposed to simply being judged. Assessment tools or batteries have been standardised on large samples to establish an average performance, this creates a bell-shaped curve of distribution of scores, with average in the centre and less common scores at either end. Many practitioners are now exploring dynamic assessment which probes what an individual might be capable of with a little support.
I like the etymology of the word ‘assess’, my job as an assessor is ‘to sit’, I am not fond of online assessments for this reason. Sitting is not done passively. Instead, I am trying to get inside the experience of the person being assessed. For me, assessment is so much more than administering a list of test batteries. I am weaving a tapestry, what are the threads? Where is the individual performing, compared to an average, what are their underlying abilities and what are their barriers to achievement? What clues can I get by drawing them out in conversation and by close observation: how they sit, hold the pen, move and think. What errors are they making and what does it tell us? What were their thought processes.
When carrying out an assessment, it is important to consider the story, the individual’s narrative. This helps us to begin to understand their experience of learning. Without conducting assessments, one can only guess from outward behaviours. Often, behaviours are misleading and assumptions are inaccurate.
A good example might be a pupil with poor handwriting who cannot produce enough work. How might this look to a teacher? Chances are, this pupil is perceived as someone who needs to make more effort, who perhaps is inherently lazy, disorganised and underachieving as a result.
By assessing processing speed, working memory and handwriting speed, one can appreciate the actual challenges the pupil might face and begin to support them better. Crucially, the Equality Act protects such individuals, ensuring that where certain scores are below average (i.e. below Standard Score 85), access arrangements are essential. Access arrangements exist so that the exams are fair for all pupils, without changing the exam itself.
Before choosing any test battery, it’s important to consider:
- Are the test norms relevant, does it provide a suitable benchmark for the individual being assessed?
- Is it reliable? (age of the test comes into this).
- Is it valid, does it measure the skill we want to investigate?
Moreover, an assessment may also reveal strengths such as comprehension, visual memory, non-verbal reasoning or receptive vocabulary. These potential strengths can be used to support the learner.
Think carefully because assessment materials are a substantial investment!
I love doing assessments, I enjoy looking for the fine detail, being a learning detective. They are not about making judgements but about empowering the individual and helping them to understand their challenges and strengths. Yes, this leads to the current Holy Grail: an understanding of how one learns, metacognition. Through recommendations, one can provide a way forward and offer new strategies.
Invest in some assessment materials today.