Assessment: “Weighing the pig doesn’t fatten it”



We 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.


Why assess?


Unless 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 it’.

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 justification.


What can we assess?


First 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).




Declarative 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).




A 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.




Understanding 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.




Aptitude 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…unless 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. 


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).



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


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.


Other forms of assessment


Teachers can gain valuable insights into their pupils’ abilities by using a number of other techniques which include observational techniques, interviews and parental discussion, as well as a type of dynamic assessment looking at the direct process of learning (Long, 2000: 64).


Observational techniques


Observational techniques are appropriate for gathering information about classroom processes. Flanders (1970) developed one of the most commonly used systems of classroom observation. As shown below, this system identifies 10 types of interaction during a lesson, with observational judgements made every 3 seconds.


  1. Accepts feeling
  2. Praises or encourages                  Response    
  3. Accepts or uses ideas of pupils
  4. Asks questions                           Teacher talk      
  5. Lecturing
  6. Giving directions                        Initiation    
  7. Criticising or justifying authority
  8. Pupil talk-Response                    Pupil Talk Response    
  9. Pupil talk-Initiation                     Initiation    
  10. Silence or confusion                   Silence


(Flanders, 1970, found in Long, 2000: 65)


This system can show differences between teacher styles, for example whether a teacher is capable of generating student involvement, or whether he or she has a tendency to dominate classroom processes. However, Flanders’ system was specifically designed to show different types of verbal interactions, and would need to be modified to look into other aspects of observable behaviour.




Teachers usually interview students or discuss their progress with their parents. The interviews can be used with the aim of gathering information as a basis for selection or advice on future studies, or for identification of a student’s problem behaviour. People entering interview situations have made critical decisions beforehand and do not change them very readily. For example, students discussing their own problem behaviour are apt to present themselves as “the victim,” while parents who have been called into school tend to ascribe their children’s problem behaviour to factors that are not their responsibility. According to Walker (1998, found in Long, 2000: 66), the typical encounter involved in parents’ evenings is regarded as being a problematic interface between the power bases of home and school. Parents are frustrated by not receiving the information they need, while teachers tend to manage the exchange and limit the need for further action.


Dynamic assessment


Dynamic assessment is concerned with the changes in child’s abilities in response to a learning situation. Conventional forms of assessment are only considered to be ‘snapshots’ (Long, 2000: 67) of students’ abilities, as they assume that development is a progressive and linear process. A different view of the learning process sees it as a form of active constructivism. For Vygotsky (1978), observing children learning with support is bound to provide a much more accurate idea of their abilities and likely future progress. We will examine this form of assessment in depth in another paper.




Assessment plays a major part in the teaching-learning process. The assessment of ability involves assessment of knowledge, skills and understanding, although, in reality, most tests focus on factual recall. As for aptitude assessments, these try to predict future attainments. 

Summative assessments show the level of students’ achievements, whereas formative assessments are used to guide future educational experiences, giving feedback to students and including questions put by teachers.

Formal assessments take two forms: criterion-referenced tests based on the curriculum, and norm-referenced tests, which enable teachers to assess learners’ “absolute” level of achievements.

Other forms of assessment are observational techniques, which form the basis for altering management approaches; interviews with students and parents, which can play an important role in managing problem situations; and a dynamic view of learning, which posits that there is a direct link between teaching techniques and pupils’ performance and motivation.




  • Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5, 7-75.
  • Butler, R. (1988). Enhancing and undermining intrinsic motivation: the effects of  task-involving and ego-involving evaluation on interest and performance. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 58, 1-14.
  • Flanders, N. (1970). Analyzing Teacher Behavior. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
  • Fleming, M. and Chambers, B. (1983). Teacher-made tests: windows on the classroom. In W. Hathaway (Ed.) New Directions for Testing and Measurement, vol. 19, Testing in the Schools. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Gipps, C., Steadman, S., Blackstone, T. and Stierer, B. (1983). Testing Children: Standardised Testing in Schools and LEAs. London: Heinemann Educational Books.
  • Long, M. (2000). The Psychology of Education. London: RoutledgeFarmer.
  • MacIntosh, H. and Hale, D. (1976). Assessment and the Secondary School Teacher. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Salmon-Cox, L. (1981). Teachers and standardised achievement tests: what’s Really happening? Phi Delta Kappa, May.
  • Thackray, D. (1974). Reading Readiness Profiles. Sevenoaks: Hodder & Stoughton.
  • Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Walker, B. (1998). Meetings without communication: a study of parents’ evenings in secondary schools. British Educational Research Journal, 24, 163-179.


Source: Dr. Dimitris Thanasoulas