Assessment: Developing your own approach

Written by: Claire Hodgson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

How are you getting on with life after national curriculum levels? Claire Hodgson offers some evidence-based guidance on how schools can develop their own approaches to ensuring effective assessment

Assessment in schools has always been a “hot topic”. The abolition of reportable national curriculum levels from September 2014 raised the heat. With that decision, a greater emphasis was placed on allowing teachers more flexibility in the way that they plan and assess learning.

It was also heralded as the opportunity to develop “an assessment system which enables schools to check what pupils have learned and whether they are on track to meet expectations” (National Curriculum and Assessment from September 2014, Department for Education, 2014) – a policy change which places a significant emphasis on embedding the use of formative assessment.

The NFER has long been involved in school assessment and has worked closely with schools to help provide assessments and other products and services that support effective teaching and learning.

Discussions with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the Schools, Students and Teachers Network (SSAT) confirmed our own findings: the move from a single national assessment system (levels) to a more flexible, school-determined approach has provided new opportunities.

However, it has also created some uncertainty. 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 between staff and students?

In partnership with ASCL and SSAT, we have provided a free resource to help schools in developing their own approaches to assessment. We agreed that the best and most effective assessment systems:

  • Are clear, consistent and coherent – and can be readily understood by students, 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.

We also agreed 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 school leaders and practitioners – enabling schools to develop a system that works effectively in their own contexts.

An effective assessment approach

We considered an approach, with formative assessment at its heart, which could be adopted by secondary schools. The resource was particularly designed for use in key stage 3 but it can (with a bit of adapting) be used in a wide range of situations and with all key stages. We considered the approach from two perspectives – whole-school and departmental.

The whole-school approach

From the whole-school point of view, it is important to have a coherent approach to assessment and how the progress made by students will be shared. Crucially, this information needs to be easily understood by the students 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 student progress as well as the ways in which assessment will be used to inform future learning.

When defining a whole-school approach, it is important to use a range of assessment strategies with which students can become familiar regardless of the subject in which they are being used. It is then up to the individual departments to adapt the assessment approach to reflect their specific curriculum and teaching requirements.

The departmental approach

For formative assessment to aid students’ progression through a subject, it is important 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 students’ progress and how the evidence can be used to plan teaching and learning.

It is also important to reflect on the “rarely linear” nature of progress through the subject and consider the timing of assessments to provide the most effective formative information. The resource focuses on English, mathematics, science, geography, history and modern foreign languages, but the approach can be applied to all subjects.


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 learners in your school.
We think that this resource provides a framework for school leaders and department heads to work together to plan a coherent whole-school approach to assessment that will support the learning of each and every student.

The resource highlights some of the effective formative assessment strategies that already exist and, hopefully, will engage schools in asking the right questions to ensure they have an assessment approach that works for them.

The demand for such a targeted resource among senior school leaders was strongly evidenced recently when the framework was presented at the ASCL annual conference. The interest in and engagement with the resource was very high with one conference attendee commenting that it is “a principled and practical approach to reviewing assessment”.

Key questions to ask about assessment

The NFER devised a set of key questions to prompt thinking about a whole-school approach to assessment. These require school leaders 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 looks like.

Departmental responses should be shared in order to develop the whole-school approach. We posed these key questions to a panel of experts – heads of department and representatives from key subject associations – to shape the resource and explore how assessment works best in different subject areas.

The in-depth discussions of the expert panel revealed much about the good formative assessment practice already going on in schools, which the resource aims to share. The intention is that teachers using the resource will be able to confirm whether what they are already doing is appropriate and in line with other schools’ practices and to pick up some alternative strategies to try out in their own classrooms. Key aspects included:

  • Secure subject knowledge and fluency with specific techniques are important but are likely to contribute more strongly to success when combined with conceptual understanding.
  • Shared tasks/assessments and moderation can help a department to develop a more consistent approach to embedding formative assessment. Teachers should be encouraged to talk about students’ learning and progress outside of the pressures of accountability.
  • Talking and listening to students enables teachers to fully grasp the students’ thought processes while the students are actively engaged in that thinking.
  • Progress is not just about being able to “do more” or “do harder”. It includes students showing understanding of concepts, explaining how and why methods work, and how they might use the new knowledge and skills they are developing.
  • Students 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 student is vital. Feedback needs to be immediate if it is to inform the student’s thought processes. Prompt formative feedback (even if brief) often has more impact than detailed feedback delivered after the student has “moved on” from a topic.
  • Claire Hodgson is a research director in the NFER’s Centre for Assessment.

Further information

You can download the NFER’s Refocusing Assessment Resource via

NFER Research Insights

This article was published as part of SecEd’s NFER Research Insights series. A free pdf of the latest Research Insights best practice and advisory articles can be downloaded from the supplements page of this website:


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