Saving time: Summative assessment

Written by: Adam Riches | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Time is our most precious commodity and it is often in short supply. In this series, Adam Riches looks at how we can change common practices to help save time and improve teaching and learning. Here he focuses on summative assessment

Assessing students has always been a key part of the learning process and there is no doubt that, alongside checking for understanding while teaching is taking place, there also needs to be a point at which understanding is formally assessed.

With the move to terminal assessments for exams, teachers need to ensure that students are making progress towards achieving well and that we have built up their experience and resilience to cope with the pressure of these examinations.

However, how do we best prepare students for their examinations? We must weigh up the usefulness of summative assessment during the learning journey against the increase in workload that it creates and find the right balance.

It is tough, but sometimes we need to take a step back and ask what we are doing with summative assessment and why, because if we take the right approach, usable, reliable data can be generated with only a minor impact on teachers’ workload.

Assessment time can be a stressful period for teachers due to the huge increase in marking requirements. In order to lessen the impact of this on workload, the set-up needs to be as simple and transparent as possible, as does the thinking behind the assessments.

Why are you assessing?

The first thing that you need to consider when simplifying assessments is deciding if you need to do an assessment at all. You need to think about the purpose, validity, reliability and value to ascertain if going through the process is worthwhile. Often in schools, we neglect to consider all of the factors and this creates undue workload.

Without taking the time to ensure that assessment is purposeful, it is likely that we are just following the patterns that have been set by the school over a period of time – traditions need to be broken sometimes and it sometimes takes a review of practices and a new plan to do so.

If we lose perspective on why the assessment is taking place, it loses its value over time. Moreover, unless the data or results created from the assessment are valid and reliable, there is no point in taking the time marking it. A lot of validity and reliability of data comes from the assessment design, so spending time moderating and drafting during the assessment writing stage is as vital as ensuring that the marks are aligned.

What you get the students to do

Simply getting students to do GCSE-style questions from year 7 to 11 is not a good way to assess. It creates a lot of marking workload and gives us very little insight into the true value of the learning that has taken place.

Mixing up approaches to testing is a good way to simplify the process (and anyway, GCSE questions are often inaccessible for students in key stage 3).

So, using multiple-choice questions alongside shorter written responses and longer written responses (if needed) means that you can increase the reliability of your data and also mark many of the assessments significantly more quickly.

In addition, embedding low stakes testing into assessments allows you to test recall skills and ascertain if students have the basic knowledge and information that has been taught (this can be a lot harder for teachers to pick up on in a longer essay answer).

And simplifying questions does not mean making them easier either. Do not fall into the trap of assuming that recall is easier than anything else. It all depends on the difficulty of the question being asked.

Spacing the testing

Considering when to assess children is also of paramount importance when it comes to reducing teacher workload. Simplifying assessment often requires effective whole school organisation.

Testing students too often does not necessarily mean that you are more informed about their ability. Unless you leave ample time between assessments, you do not allow students to take on board new learning and you run the risk of training them to answer questions rather than giving them a broader understanding of a topic. In addition, revisiting topics too soon does not really tell you much about deep understanding.

Having well-spaced assessment points creates a simpler structure that is geared towards learning. By spacing testing effectively, teachers can also consolidate and effectively interweave and interleave different skills in their subject, further emphasising the importance of training memory.

What is the point in testing students at the end of a unit if the feedback that you are going to give does not relate to the next unit or anything for the rest of that year?


There will be some who hear the word assessment and instantly associate it with the dragging of bags of scripts to the car on a Friday to be marked over the weekend. This does not need to be the case. There are some excellent ways to mark work that take a fraction of the time.

For example, comparative judgement is a process where judges compare two responses and decide which is better (search online for details). Other approaches include modifying mark schemes to allow teachers to pick out key success criteria as opposed to using exam board mark schemes (which mean teachers spend hours poring over almost synonymous words and debating with themselves over a mark or two).

With that said, simplifying marking for teachers is also possible through effective training and moderation within departments. Using department time to work on assessment gives teachers good base knowledge of what they can do to help their students improve – marking is great CPD.


Assessment does not need to be complex and keeping it simple quite often reduces workload for both students and staff. It is incredible how some small tweaks to how assessments are set up, spaced and written can change the dynamic of how you assess the students you teach.

  • Adam Riches is a senior leader for teaching and learning, a Specialist Leader in Education and author Teach Smarter (Routledge, 2020). Follow him on Twitter @TeachMrRiches. Read his previous articles for SecEd, including in this series, at


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