"Weighing the pig doesn't fatten it"
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
have surely heard of the term "assessment"; but
what does it boil down to? Why should we assess ourselves
and others? What is it that we can assess? What types and
functions of assessment are there? How do IQ tests work? Are
there any alternative forms of assessment? These are the main
topics that the present paper sets out to tackle, with a view
to shedding light on the nature of assessment.
teachers assess pupils' attainments in some way, they cannot
match learning experiences (i.e., whatever is transpiring
in the classroom) with students' needs. In other words, teachers
cannot tell whether students have made any progress or whether
the former need to adjust what they are teaching or how they
are teaching it. Research has shown that learning effectiveness
is increased by appropriate and informative feedback to pupils
and teachers, and that some form of assessment must be part
of an effective learning-teaching cycle (see Long, 2000: 46
for further details).
By and large, assessment is still relatively informal, as
teachers are aware of children's performance from the work
they have done. More information about student progress or
specific skills can be gathered from a battery of specific
tests and formalised types of assessment. Based on these,
teachers can make absolute as well as relative judgements
about learners' achievements. Nevertheless, Gipps et al. (1983)
found that teachers rarely use formal test results, since
they believe that the results are needed by other people.
At any rate, testing is certainly dominating what goes on
in schools and some teachers would probably agree with what
Black and Wiliam (1998) said: 'Weighing the pig doesn't fatten
As Long (2000: 47) notes, '[a]ssessment is
a major part
of the educational process, and without it, teaching would
be a rather unfocused activity'. The fact remains, however,
that a great deal of testing is implemented with only limited
can we assess?
and foremost, assessment is concerned with attainment, that
is, a student's present level of ability or functioning in
a particular area. Such abilities can be assessed through
a range of tests covering all the main areas of general academic
attainments, as well as specific abilities or skills.
Some forms of assessment are premised upon the concept that
abilities are related to each other-if people score well on
one test, then they are likely to score well on others. What
enables them to do so is known as 'general ability' or intelligence,
and it is assessed by specialised intelligence tests.
Nonetheless, the main abilities that teachers focus on are
related to the curriculum. More specifically, there are three
categories of educational targets or goals that students are
called on to attain: a) knowledge (factual information); b)
skills (how to do things); and c) understanding (the ability
to use information). It is important to note that, even though
there is general agreement about the need for such goals,
research by Fleming and Chambers (1983) found that nearly
80 per cent of all questions in school tests dealt only with
factual information. It seems that this penchant for factual
information is due to 'the ease of using simple knowledge-based
assessments, since tests which incorporate children's use
of skills and understanding tend to be time-consuming to design
and implement' (Long, 2000: 47).
knowledge can be thought of as a body of concepts with a structure
which includes the links between concepts (ibid.). Concepts
can be physical, or abstract, or can express relationships
and connections. They can also be combined to form factual
knowledge in the form of propositions such as 'A flower's
stigma receives pollen', or 'the word libido was first used
by Cicero'. This factual knowledge could be assessed by means
of such questions as 'What do we call the part of the flower
that receives pollen?' or 'who was the word libido used by?'
Modern views of semantic knowledge regard it as a system of
connected schemata with variables. Assessment, therefore,
focuses on the development of generalised schemata within
a subject domain, along with the knowledge of how they function
within particular exemplars. For instance, one might be concerned
with the development of the concept of a 'chemical element',
with generalised notions of the nucleus and electron shell
configuration determining specific valence and reactivity.
The general concept could then be related to specific exemplars,
and tests carried out for knowledge about particular elements
showing different bonding properties (ibid.: 48).
skill relates to the procedural aspects of how to do things.
Normally, it refers to a higher-level, complex ability, made
up from a number of other abilities that are connected and
coordinated. When someone has a skill, they are supposed to
be able to function competently with it at a certain level.
Skilled performance involves implicit knowledge and is usually
generated from the development of, more or less, conscious
abilities. Skills can be assessed by carrying them out, although
they are sometimes part of more complex activities. For example,
a reading comprehension exercise may involve a range of basic
skills including reading the text and answering the questions
that follow it.
involves the transfer and use of knowledge in new situations.
This is illustrated in the following example, where students
have to apply simple mathematical rules: 'If Laura and Fred
both need two pencils and each pencil costs 15p, how much
money will they need altogether?' (ibid.: 48). As regards
higher tests of understanding, these involve holistic, real-life
tasks where both knowledge and skills are at work. In creative
writing, in particular, students may benefit from the generating
of ideas and draw on existing knowledge.
assessments engage with the potential for future attainment.
The Reading Readiness Profiles (Thackray, 1974), for instance,
test a child's visual and auditory discrimination, as the
basis for progress with reading. However, according to Long
(2000: 49), '[m]any such tests are only weak predictors
the ability assessed is a necessary precursor of the target
ability'. Conversely, the skills of phonological abilities
and the knowledge and use of letter sounds are deemed to be
the best predictions of initial reading progress.
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