Refocusing your approach to pupil assessment

Written by: Claire Hodgson | Published:
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With major changes afoot in both England and Wales, schools are under pressure to develop effective approaches to pupil assessment. As a new and free resource is published to help, Claire Hodgson offers some evidence-based guidance on how schools can develop their own approaches to assessment

One of the most talked about issues in classrooms across the country is assessment. Currently, in both England and Wales, assessment is a very hot topic that is under close scrutiny.

For example, a radical overhaul of the curriculum is underway in Wales following Professor Donaldson’s review, Successful Futures (Donaldson, 2015). The Welsh government has announced that the “whole approach to developing young people aged 3 to 16 will change. The new curriculum will have more emphasis on equipping young people for life”.

A key part of this change will be the role of assessment. The central focus of the future assessment arrangements is described as being to “ensure learners understand how they are performing and what they need to do next” and this will include a “renewed emphasis on assessment for learning as an essential and integral feature of learning and teaching” (Welsh government, 2017). The new curriculum is due to be rolled out in schools by September 2018.

Meanwhile, in England, the current government consultation, Primary Assessment in England (Department for Education, 2017), is seeking views on the current assessment system, focusing on:

  • Statutory assessment in key stages 1 and 2.
  • Assessing children’s development and readiness for school.
  • Consideration of the best starting point for measuring progress in primary schools.
  • Consideration of a proportionate assessment system.
  • Improving end of key stage statutory teacher assessment.

The consultation follows a long and turbulent period of change in the English education system including the introduction of a new curriculum in 2014 and a revised statutory testing model.

In this current climate of discussion and review, assessment is clearly at the forefront of teachers’ minds. It is also an area of great interest to us at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

Developing an assessment approach

NFER has been involved in the development of assessments (both formative and summative) for many decades and has worked closely with schools to help provide assessments and other products and services that support effective teaching and learning across the UK and internationally.

As noted above, one of the major changes in England was the abolition of reportable national curriculum levels from September 2014. This brought with it a greater emphasis on allowing teachers more flexibility in the way that they plan and assess learning.

The new “freedoms” in assessment also provided an opportunity to develop “an assessment system which enables schools to check what pupils have learned and whether they are on track to meet expectations” (Department for Education, 2014) – a policy change which placed a significant emphasis on embedding the use of formative assessment.

But how far have schools got with developing a new school assessment system?

We recently worked in partnership with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the Schools, Students and Teachers Network (SSAT) to develop an approach with formative assessment at its heart. The result is a free-to-use resource to support schools in developing their own approaches to assessment.

Although the resource was originally developed for use in England with key stage 3, the universal principles of formative assessment mean that it can easily be adapted and made appropriate for use with different age groups and within other assessment systems.

The work arose from a shared understanding that the move from a single national assessment system (levels) to a more flexible, school-determined approach has provided new opportunities. However, we also recognise that it has created some uncertainty. Headteachers and their staff continue to ponder questions such as:

  • What should the new assessment approach look like?
  • How different should it be to the previous system of levels?
  • How should a new approach be shared among key stakeholders?

As a partnership, we agreed that the best and most effective assessment systems:

  • Are clear, consistent and coherent – and can be readily understood by pupils, staff and parents/carers.
  • Are shaped through structured dialogue with the whole-school community.
  • Maintain consistency across the school, while allowing sufficient flexibility for subject variance.

And that:

  • Effective formative assessment is rooted in good pedagogy.
  • Focusing on staff training in formative assessment and engaging all staff in assessment design have more impact than top-down approaches.
  • One-size-fits-all approaches tend to be limited in their effectiveness.
  • Approaches to teacher assessment should be determined by the whole staff in such a way that the system works effectively in their specific context.

From the whole school point of view, it’s important to have a coherent approach to assessment and how the progress made by pupils will be shared. Crucially, this information needs to be easily understood by the pupils themselves, as well as by parents/carers and other stakeholders.

It is also important that there is clear communication about the mechanisms for determining and tracking pupil progress as well as the ways in which assessment will be used to inform future learning. When defining a whole-school approach, it is essential to use a range of assessment strategies with which pupils can become familiar, regardless of the subject in which they are being used. It is then up to the individual teachers and subject co-ordinators to adapt the assessment approach to reflect their specific curriculum and teaching requirements.

For formative assessment to aid pupils’ progression through a subject, it is necessary to be clear about progression signposts and to critically reflect on the “big ideas” of the subject. This will help with the identification of tasks likely to provide the best evidence of pupils’ progress and how the evidence can be used to plan teaching and learning.

The resource includes a set of key questions to prompt thinking about a whole-school approach to assessment. These questions require headteachers, subject co-ordinators and teachers to carefully consider the unique features and “big ideas” of each curriculum subject, the purpose of assessment and what progression within each subject would look like. We discussed these key questions with teachers which prompted the following comments:

  • Talking and listening to pupils enables teachers to fully grasp the pupils’ thought processes while the pupils are actively engaged in that thinking.
  • Progress is not just about being able to “do more” or “do harder”. It includes pupils showing understanding of concepts, explaining how and why methods work, and how they might use the new knowledge and skills they are developing.
  • Pupils reveal a lot about their understanding and misconceptions from the questions they ask of their teachers and peers. Progress may be evidenced by increasingly searching and complex questions which reflect current understanding and attempt to further develop and refine thinking.
  • Teacher feedback to the pupil is vital. Feedback needs to be immediate if it is to inform the pupil’s thought processes. Prompt formative feedback (even if brief) often has more impact than detailed feedback delivered after the pupil has “moved on” from a topic.

As well as providing a suggested approach to developing a revised assessment strategy, the resource shares information to help dispel common assessment myths as well as strategies for embedding effective formative assessment in the classroom.

Developing a whole-school approach to assessment can be a daunting task, particularly when given new freedoms and relatively little prescriptive guidance. However, it also provides an exciting challenge to determine an approach that meets the specific needs of your pupils.

Regardless of the outcomes of the current consultation, and any subsequent changes to the statutory assessment system, assessment will remain a vital aspect of primary teaching and learning and embedding successful formative assessment will always have an important role to play.

  • Claire Hodgson is a research director in the NFER’s Centre for Assessment

Further information

You can download the full NFER Refocusing Assessment resource guide at


  • Donaldson, G. (2015). Successful Futures. Independent Review of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales. Cardiff: Welsh Government:
  • Welsh Government (2017). New School Curriculum. Cardiff: Welsh Government:
  • Department for Education (2017). Primary Assessment in England: Government consultation. London: DfE:
  • Department for Education (2014). National Curriculum and Assessment From September 2014: Information for Schools. London: DfE:

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