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Classroom assessment in flux: Unpicking empirical evidence of assessment practices

Written by: Chris Larvin
9 min read

The term ‘assessment literacy’ describes teachers’ knowledge and use of classroom assessment approaches. Over the past decade, assessment literacy has evolved from being viewed as a singular set of knowledge and skills into a multidimensional construct encompassing a wide range of competencies and dispositions. Early conceptions were framed in terms of the competencies of teachers in creating and implementing sound assessments, rooted in the standards of assessment developed by educational associations in the United States (Coombs and DeLuca, 2022). More recently, the field has evolved to recognise assessment literacy as a complex interplay of foundational knowledge, teachers’ beliefs and identities, socio-cultural contexts and the ability to navigate the intricacies of the classroom. This broader conception acknowledges the critical role of context, teacher beliefs and identity in shaping the practices of classroom teachers (Xu and Brown, 2016).

In England, teachers’ assessment practices have been shaped by major policy changes since the Educational Reform Act of 1988, which introduced GCSEs, National Curriculum and a focus on standardised testing. Over time, the growth of formative assessment to support learning has challenged the dominant approaches of assessment in classrooms (Black and Wiliam, 2018). Concurrently, the increased pressure on assessment in a high-stakes accountability system results in teachers undertaking assessment activities that serve multiple and potentially competing purposes (Heritage and Harrison, 2019). Other policy shifts, such as the increase in school-based teacher training, have influenced how teachers understand and apply assessment in their classrooms. More recent changes include new professional frameworks – the ITT (initial teacher training) core content framework (CCF) (DfE, 2019) and early career framework (ECF) (DfE, 2024) – governing teacher education and development, which codify a body of knowledge and skills related to teaching, including assessment.


This study examined the assessment practices of 320 teachers in England, using a quantitative survey method drawing on the Approaches to Classroom Assessment Inventory (ACAI) tool and the Agreement with Classroom Assessment Practices (ACAP) tool developed for this study. The ACAI incorporated 15 contemporary assessment standards, including the UK, Canada, USA and Europe, identifying 12 assessment approaches across four dimensions (DeLuca et al., 2016). In this study, minor adaptations were made to the language and scenarios, to reflect the context of English schools, and tested in a pilot. This scale allows teachers to respond to scenarios reflecting real assessment situations, aiming to distinguish between contemporary and traditional assessment practices based on their responses. The ACAP aimed to provide insight into current assessment practices in classrooms in England, along with teachers’ alignment to statutory frameworks, drawing on assessment-related knowledge and practice statements of the ITT CCF and ECF, with a theory-driven, expert-and-teacher-panel review process used to maintain validity and ensure relevance to teachers. When compared to school workforce statistics, the sample was over-representative of female teachers and secondary teachers, and under-representative of certain age groups and senior leaders.

Complexities and similarities

Analysis of the ACAI and ACAP scores suggests a multifaceted environment where teachers’ preferences vary significantly across dimensions and contexts. The ACAI findings suggest broad endorsement of both traditional and contemporary assessment methods among teachers in this study, with Table 1 indicating the complexities of classroom assessment. Illustrated using an ACAI scenario of planning a scheme of work, these findings suggest that teachers prefer the contemporary approach of designing formative assessments to refine subsequent lessons (assessment for learning), rather than planning backwards from a unit test (assessment as learning). More traditional approaches were then observed, whereby a pupil’s grade would be determined by summative assessments (design) over formative assessments, drawing on externally developed materials such as quizzes and tests (consistent), rather than developing tests based on enacted lessons (contextual). The ACAP showed generally high levels of agreement, particularly with statements related to knowledge of assessment and high-quality feedback. However, as shown in Table 2, written feedback is a clear area of difference between beliefs and practice. Exploratory factor analysis found two factors related to assessment pedagogies and workload management, which explained 45 per cent of the item variance.

Table 1: Descriptive statistics (mean and standard deviation) for the ACAI component of the survey for all participants (n = 320)
Dimension Approach Mean (SD)
Assessment purposes AoL 3.86 (.95)
AfL 4.23 (.87)
AaL 3.74 (1.00)
Assessment processes Design 4.13 (.96)
Use/scoring 3.45 (.82)
Communication 3.94 (.99)
Assessment fairness Standard 3.96 (.89)
Equitable 3.71 (.77)
Differentiated 3.42 (1.02)
Assessment theory Consistent 4.50 (.98)
Contextual 4.02 (.87)
Balanced 4.02 (.89)

Note: 1 = not at all likely, 6 = highly likely, AoL = assessment of learning, AfL = assessment for learning, AaL = assessment as learning

Figure 1: Descriptive statistics (mean and standard deviation) for the ACAI component of the survey for all participants (n = 320)

Descriptive statistics (mean and standard deviation) for the ACAI component of the survey for all participants (n = 320)

Table 2: Distribution of responses for the highest and lowest mean scoring items in the ACAP component of the survey for all participants (n = 320)
Statement 1 = Strongly disagree 2 3 4 5 6 = Strongly agree
Highest mean scores
I understand that high-quality feedback can be written or verbal 0.0% 1.4% 4.4% 7.8% 22.6% 63.9%
I understand that written feedback is only one form of feedback 2.3% 1.0% 2.3% 10.0% 19.7% 64.7%
I understand that effective assessment is critical to teaching 0.3% 4.0% 2.0% 8.8% 26.9% 57.9%
Lowest mean scores
I use verbal feedback in place of written feedback where possible 33.0% 25.0% 23.3% 11.3% 5.3% 2.0%
I develop assessment tasks to support… metacognitive development 27.3% 28.0% 24.5% 12.4% 5.7% 2.1%
I record data only when useful for improving pupil outcomes 31.9% 22.1% 15.4% 13.4% 11.7% 5.4%
Figure 2: Distribution of responses for the highest and lowest mean scoring items in the ACAP component of the survey for all participants (n = 320)

Distribution of responses for the highest and lowest mean scoring items in the ACAP component of the survey for all participants (n = 320)

Differences between teaching phases, gender, age and training routes were all found to be statistically significant, indicating that teachers’ backgrounds and contexts influence their assessment literacy. Further education (FE) teachers showed greater endorsement for assessment as learning and communication approaches compared to primary and secondary teachers, perhaps illustrating differing portfolio-based assessment systems. Secondary and FE teachers were more likely to have standardised approaches to assessment over using more equitable approaches, such as using diagnostic assessments, when compared to their primary counterparts. Male teachers demonstrated higher support for traditional approaches to assessment, including scoring and assessment of learning and consistent assessments. They also showed lower levels of support for statements in both assessment pedagogies and workload management factors. Interestingly, levels of teaching experience influenced agreement regarding workload management, citing behaviours such as using verbal feedback over written. More experienced teachers, having taught for between 11 and 20 years, reported higher levels of agreement compared to those with fewer years in the profession. These results suggest the influence of demographics and prior experience in shaping teachers’ perspectives and practices.

Assessment in flux

Despite the importance of teachers’ assessment practices shaping pupil learning (Brookhart, 2011), this study is one of few empirical studies conducted on the topic of teachers’ assessment practices in England. However, the implications of this study are constrained by the small sample size and reliance on self-reported data. This study does provide an opportunity to consider the diverse assessment approaches influenced by both individual beliefs and system-wide policies:

1. Complexity in assessment

This study reveals a varied landscape of assessment practices and approaches. The balance between these approaches is influenced by micro-level factors, such as teachers’ individual beliefs, meso-level factors, in the form of department and school-level policies, and macro-level factors, such as system-wide educational policies and accountability measures (Baird, 2009). A teacher’s ability to assess a pupil’s learning is deeply rooted in a broad range of competencies, rather than a narrow set of skills such as writing a retrieval quiz. These competencies should include the diverse practices reflected in the ACAI scenarios, but also recognise the socio-cultural contexts in which classroom assessments take place. Teachers must be aware of how assessment can be influenced by cultural bias, equity and inclusion, and language. Additionally, an assessment-literate teacher should be able to recognise the influence of pupils’ contextual factors, such as family support, access to resources and socio-economic background, which can shape a pupil’s assessment experiences and their own judgement. This study has found that early career teachers, when compared to their more experienced counterparts, are not adopting this more holistic approach to assessment. School leaders should afford teachers the freedom to try varied approaches and focus on how assessment is ultimately improving pupils’ learning. 

2. Background and experiences influence practice

The approaches taken by teachers are shaped by a wide range of factors, with personal and professional experiences appearing to play a significant role in shaping assessment practices. This suggests that any professional development in assessment should be context-sensitive and personalised, respecting varied backgrounds and allowing time for reflection to assist teachers in overcoming challenges to improving their practice. The curious impact of gender on assessment literacy, while observed in higher education (Micklewright et al., 2014), is not fully understood, although differences may lie in the intersection of teacher identity, pedagogical methods and classroom assessment approaches. 

3. Policy shaping practice

The ITT CCF and ECF have attempted to formalise the knowledge and practice related to classroom assessment; however, this study has found differing levels of endorsement across a range of elements within these professional frameworks. The differences highlight the varied approaches to assessment and reporting in schools. It also suggests that trainees and early career teachers could find themselves in tension between the views of their teacher educators and their mentors and peers in school, who may value differing practices. Other elements of education policy, such as high-stakes examinations, league tables and Ofsted, are also likely exerting an influence on assessment practices (Wiliam, 2015). This study suggests that where accountability pressures are felt greatest, the prioritisation of summative assessments in preparation for examinations potentially undermines the value of formative assessment in providing feedback to support pupils’ personalised learning. There is clearly a need for teachers who are skilled in assessment, as echoed by calls from the National Association for Headteachers for a lead assessor in each school, and a need for school leaders to consider the assessment approaches and requirements of teachers in their own settings.

4. Assessment literacy to navigate debate

Standardised testing and other traditional approaches remain entrenched in the English school system, supported by alignment with accountability frameworks and relative ease of implementation. Conversely, contemporary approaches require more delicate and careful application. For example, learner portfolios and peer feedback may be engaging and beneficial for learning but can be demanding in application, complex in implementation and impractical within the constraints of the current examination system. This dichotomy reflects the tension between achieving a measurable educational outcome whilst nurturing the holistic development of pupils. When comparing this study to research in other developed countries (DeLuca et al., 2021), this study suggests that teachers in England are far more focused on measurable outcomes. Assessment literacy is therefore vital to enable teachers to navigate systemic demands whilst fostering meaningful learning in their classrooms.

5. Further work is required

This investigation contributes to a nuanced conception of assessment literacy, suggesting that it encompasses more than just knowledge and skills; it‘s deeply intertwined with teacher identity and shaped by a complex array of socio-cultural and professional influences (Looney et al., 2018). While the study points to the value of using instruments like ACAI to aid teachers‘ understanding and development of assessment practices, it also acknowledges the limitations posed by its sample size and methodology. Thus, there is a need for further research, including longitudinal studies and qualitative analyses, to deepen our understanding of assessment practices and support the enhancement of teacher education and development that equips classroom practitioners to meet the demands of the system and, ultimately, the learning needs of their pupils.

Note: Conducted as part of the MSc Educational Assessment at the University of Oxford, the author is grateful to participants and for the supervision and support of Professor T Hopfenbeck and the tutelage of Professor JA Baird.

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