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Assessment: "Weighing the pig doesn't fatten it"
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas

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Functions of assessment

All the various forms of assessment fall into two major categories of summative assessment (which shows a level of achievement) and formative assessment (which guides learning in the future). Assessment, however, takes a similar form in both cases. In practice, a particular assessment usually has both functions.

Summative assessment

The most common forms of assessment involve 'summarising' levels of achievement. Formal assessments such as exams are of great importance to the students involved, since they provide the key to employment or higher education. They are also important to schools, since they are being used to evaluate the performance of schools and teachers alike.
Tests are a mainstay of what goes on in schools, but this can have a backwash effect, in the sense that the content of tests comes to dominate what is taught. It stands to reason that a limited test cannot give a realistic assessment of performance across the whole curriculum. Most formal tests are (or try to be) selective, focusing on what can easily be assessed in an examination situation. Everyone is aware of this but teachers are under constant pressure to deliver a curriculum that covers only what it can assess, to the detriment of deeper knowledge and understanding.
There is nothing "innocuous" about assessment; it constitutes a form of evaluation that pupils often use to make judgements about their own competence and, by extension, intelligence. As students go through school, grades and the results of assessments seem to become increasingly important in determining their involvement, as well as their self-image, either positively or negatively.

Formative assessment

Formative assessments are used to help direct or 'form' the educational process for students. One key feature in formative assessment seems to be the role of feedback to pupils. For feedback to be effective, it should focus on details of students' work, giving advice as to which particular areas need remedial work, rather than merely a comparison with other students' work. In a study by Butler (1988), 48 students were given feedback which took one of three different forms. The first type consisted of detailed comments about the students' performance, in relation to criteria set for the specific topic of work. The second type of feedback comprised the students' overall grades, whereas the third type combined grades with detailed comments. The students given the detailed comments showed a 30 per cent improvement, while those who received only grades showed no improvement whatsoever. Interestingly enough, the same holds for those who received both grades and comments. As a revealing gloss on these findings, we could say that, apparently, any form of evaluative comment tends to distract attention away from informational content and actually decreases learner motivation.

Range of functions

Assessments can be carried out for a number of different reasons. MacIntosh and Hale (1976) have highlighted a number of well-known categories organised along a formative-summative continuum (taken from Long, 2000: 52).

Formative
Diagnosis: It involves finding out skills, strengths and weaknesses, implying that teaching should change
Guidance: Test scores can be used to direct students
Selection: Tests can provide the basis for placement in schools or other forms of education
Prediction: An indication of potential academic progress
Summative
Evaluation: Giving a value to a pupil's abilities, which may be recorded and used for monitoring
Grading and Certification: Test results lead to a qualification

However, Gipps et al. (1983) showed that many tests exist only for purposes of record keeping. In many cases, even when teachers themselves use regular testing, they rely on their own judgements to make assessments about students, disregarding test scores (Salmon-Cox, 1981).

Types of tests

The two main categories of tests are referred to as criterion-referenced and norm-referenced tests, and have different functions and rationales. The purpose of a criterion-referenced test is to compare each individual's abilities with some form of criterion, whereas the purpose of a norm-referenced test is to discriminate between individuals or to compare them with one another.

Criterion-referenced tests

Criterion-referenced tests assess performance on specific features of ability attainments. With reading, for example, such a test might look at whether a student knows some letter sounds, or whether he or she can read certain words. Inasmuch as they help identify strengths and weaknesses and may guide future learning, they can be regarded as formative tests. A criterion-referenced English test might identify that students have weak comprehension skills, which would mean that it would be fruitless to go on to listening comprehension tasks until they have developed a strong enough basis with these skills.

Norm-referenced tests

By 'norm' we mean a typical value for something. Norm-referenced tests are designed to allow a student's abilities to be assessed in relation to all the other students of the same age. In this light, they are mainly summative tests, although if they can identify specific skills that can be taught, they constitute types of formative assessment.
Norm-referenced tests are developed by first constructing a number of items that are supposed to assess abilities in a particular domain. With reading, this might involve using a list of words of increasing complexity and length. Then, the test is checked for reliability (dependability) and validity (meaningfulness), and modified until it meets the desired criteria. After that, the test is standardised by giving it to a sample of children that cover an appropriate age range, so that they are representative of the wider population. This information then feeds into the construction of age-standardised tables that can be used to compare individual test results. The standardisation of these tests is very important, but many such tests were standardised decades ago, which is not a sound basis on which to assess present-day abilities.

Intelligence Testing

The notion of general ability or intelligence has been the most important way of explaining individual differences. It is usually assessed by means of measuring performance on a test of different skills, using tasks that emphasise reasoning and / or problem solving in different areas. It can be expressed as an overall IQ (Intelligence Quotient). Early assessments of IQ were premised upon Alfred Binet's research in 1905, as part of an attempt to identify students who needed specialist help. After Binet, many English and American psychologists and educationists interested themselves in IQ tests, and there was a general belief that intelligence was largely inherited and, as a result, quite stable over a student's school career. There is a wide range of IQ tests purporting to assess verbal and non-verbal intelligence, but we will not concern ourselves with them in the present article.

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