‘Probably the biggest issue influencing success is not the quality of the assessment, but the way it is built into the educational system and, particularly, its curriculum’
Gardner, D., Weeden, P. and Butt, G., 2015
Topics on this page:
- Assessment and curriculum planning
- An assessment framework for geography
- Using a mixed economy of assessments
- Analysing assessment practice
- Making baseline assessments
- Summative assessment
- What form of summative assessment to use?
- Are summative assessments fit for purpose?
- Can summative assessments be used formatively?
- Reviewing summative assessments and designing your own
- Finding out more about assessment
Assessment and curriculum planning
Planning assessment should start with the content of the geography curriculum. The curriculum sets out what geography is to be learnt and defines the progress that students are expected to make. Assessment should be planned to find out what students have learnt in line with those expectations. Assessment should not be an add-on or an afterthought; it is central to the curriculum planning process.
Only by knowing the starting points of your students and understanding their achievements can you decide how to implement the curriculum in practice. Assessment of students’ learning is also central to evaluating whether the curriculum is achieving its aims.
If many students fail to meet the expectations set out in the curriculum, it raises questions about the effectiveness of the curriculum or how it has been taught. If only a few students have not met the curriculum expectations, a teacher can focus on providing the support and teaching they need.
Healy (2020) advocates using the curriculum as a progression model. This means that a geography teacher makes judgements about students’ progress based on curriculum-related expectations and how much they have learned.
When a teacher specifies carefully what geography they intend to teach it is easier to assess when students have learned it. This approach contrasts with age-related expectations, which Didau (2020) describes as ‘unhelpful’.
- Refer to Planning for continuity and progression and Progression in geographical learning and consider carefully the links between curriculum, learning and assessment.
- Read Healy (2020), who argues that an assessment strategy should be designed in relation to the curriculum rather than assessment structures determining what is taught.
- Read Hoare (2023) who discusses ‘integrated’ assessment to give better feedback to improve students’ progress in geography.
An assessment framework for geography
A geography assessment strategy should serve all four purposes of assessment as described in Assessing students’ learning. However, it will be mostly concerned with day-to-day classroom assessment of the diagnostic and formative kind, designed to promote and support student learning. It will also include some periodic summative assessments designed to judge attainment at specific times, and will need to consider assessments in relation to public examinations.
Good teacher assessment does not occur by chance; it must be carefully planned within the overall curriculum strategy. For geography, Weeden and Hopkin have put forward this Framework for assessment, recording and reporting: at Key Stage 3/4 with three foci:
- Short term (day-to-day) assessment, which is mainly diagnostic and formative (AfL) and occurs in lessons.
- Medium term (periodic) assessment, which includes both formative and summative assessments and often occurs at the end of a unit of work. Think of this as a teacher ‘taking stock’ by looking at a wider range of evidence to judge students’ attainment.
- Long term assessment (transitional), which is usually summative assessment and informs the transition to the next stage of learning, e.g. a new year or key stage. This is when assessments ‘go public’ through reporting.
- Read more about these three foci in the GA webpage on Assessing progress in geography.
Each focus has a different purpose and audience, uses different assessment strategies and contributes to different forms of record-keeping. Some particular points to note are:
- Much day-to-day assessment will be informal, building up a teacher’s professional knowledge of students’ capabilities
- Periodic assessments draw together evidence from formative and summative assessments and can be used formatively to set targets for the next unit or next term
- Long term assessment depends on effective short and medium-term practice.
As an example of how an assessment framework works in practice, Hannah Knox (2016) describes the strategy for the short and medium term that they have developed at the Angmering School, West Sussex:
‘Our assessment strategy has two foci – skills and knowledge. Skills progress is assessed during lesson tasks and through assessments. Knowledge progress is tested primarily by assessments within each unit of work. Students keep their work in an exercise book or an assessment folder which builds up throughout key stage 3; by the end of the year it constitutes a comprehensive and detailed assessment of progress.
The skills assessment comprises both teacher- and self-assessment and is outlined in each scheme of work, which sets out the elements to be taught and practised in lessons. Students are encouraged to refer back to these during the lesson and in “dedicated improvement and reflection time (DIRT)” regularly throughout the term. Teaching staff also refer to the skills grid when marking books, noting thresholds that have been met. When students believe a piece of their work demonstrates a skill at a particular threshold, they are encouraged to highlight it on the skills grid. This encourages them to take responsibility for their learning and engage with what is required to improve their work.
The knowledge assessment is of an identified piece of work, once every half term. This assessment covers a range of work including examination-style tests, fieldwork-based enquiries and extended writing. Each has a marking scheme linked to the four thresholds, so teachers can mark work consistently over the year.’ (Teaching Geography, Summer 2016)
- Gardner, D., Weeden, P. and Butt, G. (2015) Assessing progress in Your Key Stage 3 Geography Curriculum (eBook), Geographical Association, chapter 2, 3.
Using a mixed economy of assessments
Using different forms of assessment enables teachers to use different teaching and learning activities and evaluate a range of students’ capabilities and achievements in geography. Most departments use a ‘mixed economy’ with different types of assessment.
Assessments in geography range from regular low-stakes assessments, such as those to develop more secure knowledge through the ‘testing effect’, to in-depth report writing, such as those to demonstrate more complex understanding and analysis.
Assessments can happen in a number of ways, such as through questioning, short tests of specific knowledge, longer synoptic tests, extended writing, enquiries to assess conceptual understanding and skills, and problem solving or decision-making exercises for students to apply their knowledge in new situations. Assessment can be by the teacher, a fellow student or the student applying success criteria to their own work.
- Refer to Healey (2020) Figure 3: Mixed constitution of assessment – formative assessment.
Healey explains that the type of tasks and activities shown in this table relate to the type of learning that is being assessed. For example, map tests/quizzes are about ensuring that students have locational knowledge at their fingertips because it will be required for later, more complex learning.
Writing short paragraphs is well suited to demonstrating that students have grasped substantive concepts. Extended writing is more commonly employed at the end of a topic to assess a student’s capacity in higher order thinking, for example to demonstrate analysis and evaluation in relation to the concepts and content taught in that topic.
Effective assessment should be carefully designed to avoid distorting the curriculum. Above all, pressure to ‘teach to the test’ must be resisted. Assessment design requires teachers to decide what content to prioritise. When assessment focuses on key content, it is most likely to have an impact on learning.
- See examples of how to fit different assessments into a unit of work in the Key Stage 3 Geography Teachers’ Toolkit publications from the Geographical Association.
This diagram taken from a presentation by the GA’s Assessment and Examinations Special Interest Group illustrates the range of forms of assessment found in one geography course.
- Read Harris, M. (2017) Becoming an Outstanding Geography Teacher, Routledge, chapter 12 Marking for progress.
Harris discusses the role of pre-tests, progress wheels and mid-topic assessments in identifying students’ progress. He also suggests it is worth setting just one target and asking students to highlight when they have actioned it.
Analysing assessment practice
Using Weeden and Hopkin’s framework as a prompt, analyse the assessment practice in the department in which you are working.
- How many different types of assessments did you find?
- Which strategies are part of the department’s assessment and recording practice?
- Are the strategies used for the purposes shown in the diagram?
- What records are kept and how are they used?
- Discuss with your geography mentor your findings from the above activity. Compare the assessment system used in your school with the one used in Angmering (also compare it with the system used in the second school).
- Try to meet with some teachers (or other trainee teachers) from different schools and discuss the similarities and differences between the assessment systems that are used.
Assessment in every lesson
If assessment is to support learning, then it must be integral and be part of your planning for every lesson. Select appropriate tasks and activities that explore and challenge students’ understanding so that these enable assessment for learning to occur.
When considering assessment, be aware that students are individuals and will earn at different rates and think how you can get a handle on this. Students also learn from each other and from their experiences, not only from the work a teacher plans for a lesson. And do not forget misconceptions – some students will develop these and they must be assessed too!
Systematically plan assessment so it is continuous and integrated into the lesson activities. In particular consider your questioning and the cognitive challenge you pose all of your students. Consider when and how you will include opportunities for students to respond, orally and in writing, so that you can make your assessment of their learning.
Use this evidence to adapt teaching to meet learning needs – then your assessment will be formative. Think about ways you can provide feedback during a lesson and build time for this into your planning.
Making baseline assessments
It is likely that teachers will want to establish what students already know at certain points in their geography education to plan the next sequence of learning. This is particularly so when students enter secondary school. It can be difficult for secondary schools to assess prior learning, particularly where there are many feeder primary schools. Geography departments do this in a variety of ways.
Some use the first unit of work in year 7 as a diagnostic assessment and might include an extended piece of writing for this purpose. Others rely on making good links with local primary schools, and arrange a link project that students start in year 6 and continue when they join the secondary school.
- Refer to Diagnostic assessment.
Diagnostic or baseline assessment can be helpful to provide a useful insight into students’ knowledge at the start of each academic year, especially if a teacher is new to teaching the class. These assessments need to be carefully crafted to identify any key elements of the curriculum that need to be understood in relation to the upcoming curriculum to be taught.
- Discuss with your geography mentor how the department makes baseline (or threshold) assessments in geography.
Assessments allow students and teachers alike to appreciate what has been learned. A summative assessment can contribute towards this because it records a student’s attainment at a particular point in time and is used to find out what students do, or do not, know.
Typically, teachers use some form of summative test or assessment at the end of a learning sequence to provide information about what a student has learned and to identify whether specific curriculum goals have been achieved.
Summative assessments should not just focus on what has just been taught in the current topic. Half-termly geography assessments often measure student performance in terms of the temporary variations from the specific unit they have just studied rather than learning in terms of permanent changes in long-term memory.
Teachers should be looking for a rounded understanding of what students know and should draw from earlier as well as recent work when they make assessments. Therefore, an assessment at the end of year 8 should also include some concepts taught in year 7. In this way, cumulative curriculum content is tested rather than only recently completed content.
What form of summative assessment to use?
It depends on what you are trying to assess. There are several different types of summative assessment, from simple tests to complex problem-solving tasks. Some students with poor recall may be unable to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills if they have to rely on remembering factual information; data-response questions are a way of providing information as a prompt.
One form of these is decision making, which refers to specific resources and asks students to use the information they contain to show skills such as analysis, evaluation and synthesis.
- Study these three examples of different types summative assessments:
- Cities assessment – see Eyre (2011)
- Year 7 Plate Tectonics Class Test – see Harris (2015)
- Wood and Sutton (2002)
- Year 9 Planet Earth Enquiry: Will my Gravestone last forever?
- Summative assessment questions for examples of examination questions and marking criteria.
- See the PowerPoint: Writing with confidence: purposeful assessment questions, GA Conference 2016.
Are summative assessments fit for purpose?
Judgements about students’ attainments via summative assessment might appear straightforward and easy, but this is not always so and results, particularly if based on one test, can be misleading. To assess attainment it is better to utilise a wide range of information and draw conclusions from patterns of performance over a number of assessments, not just one test that depends on the specific context or the task used.
In assessment terms, what a student can do at a given moment is generally referred to as a student’s ‘performance’ i.e. how well they do in a test. From this, a teacher draws inferences about attainment and what a student has learned. Both the validity and reliability of the assessment are relevant here. Validity is whether an assessment is fit for purpose and actually assesses what we want it to. Reliability is the accuracy or consistency of the assessment.
A question to ask is whether the assessment or test can make a valid judgement about a student’s capability. Can a teacher justify the inferences they make from it? Using a range of types of assessments makes an overall judgement more valid than if it were based on one type of assessment.
This is because the type of assessment format may affect students’ performance, so using a variety is more inclusive. In addition, a teacher needs to consider how accurate and reliable an assessment is. If a student cannot access a geography assessment, e.g. because of literacy problems, the assessment is not reliable. An assessment should be accessible to all students, so that they can demonstrate what they can achieve. This is not easy and you will learn from experience what works best.
Another question to ponder about a summative assessment is whether it is fair. A single performance in an assessment is probably not a reliable measure of what a student has really learned. Can the results represent a student’s achievement for the whole of geography? Is it valid to use an assessment that only samples some aspects of geography? In the Angmering example above, two foci are used, skills and knowledge.
The GA uses three aspects of students’ achievements in geography in their benchmarks which are considered in Assessing progress in geography at key stage 3. This suggests using an identified piece of work, once every half term, which builds to give an overview of a student’s achievements (note they describe it as work not assessment!).
Another important factor in making reliable assessments is the degree of support that students have been given. Only the teacher is aware of this; written outcomes can disguise the help that has been given, from both teachers and peers. When you are looking at students’ work, consider how you set up the task, what you asked them to do and what you expected. All of these questions are important when you are making judgements about performance.
- Refer to Earle (2021) and Christodoulou (2018) to read more about validity and reliability.
There are lots of considerations outlined above to bear in mind when using summative assessments. This can be daunting, but take your time to talk to experienced teachers about these matters and explore lots of ideas. Also think about the positive advantages of summative assessments, as Tom Sherrington describes:
‘I find that tests are the best way to reveal what each student can really do – without learning aids and without asking a friend. In regular classwork and book work, students have the capacity to mask their real understanding and they often do, deliberately or inadvertently; I find this quite a serious issue. Learning in a class has a healthy and helpful social aspect as ideas are explored but ultimately this can mask the progress of individuals. In a test, you are on your own. There is also the effect that students often commit themselves in a test situation. they want it to count, so they work harder during the test itself than they might if the same questions were just done as a class exercise. That’s not a universal truth, but generally, it’s what I find’.
- Read more from this blogpost in Formative use of Summative Tests.
Can summative assessments be used formatively?
Many teachers do not draw clear distinctions between formative and summative assessments and believe in using summative assessment formatively. By this they mean that they will use an end-of-topic test to identify the next steps for learning and summative assessments to diagnose where there are misconceptions or problems to target.
A formative approach to test outcomes is to take questions that have been poorly answered and discuss and rework them with students, perhaps interactively with the whole class. In all of these examples, teachers recognise the importance of using the feedback that follows the summative assessment for formative purposes. The summative assessment provides the source of detailed information that identifies where each student needs to deepen their understanding.
- Read Weeden and Lambert (2006) Section 8 Formative use of summative tests pp. 21-2.
However, Healy (2020) warns that the different the purposes of assessments can pull in different directions and suggests that making formative inferences from summative tests can be misleading. Gardner et al (2015) in Figure 4.14 report on a different approach – how to use formative assessment in the approach to public examinations.
- Analyse the different types of summative assessments used in your school for key stage 3 geography. What different forms of assessment are used?
- How does the department ensure that it makes fair assessments of students’ achievement across the whole of geography?
- How does the department make assessments accessible for lower achievers? How do they ensure that higher achievers have an opportunity to demonstrate their abilities?
- Discuss your analysis with your geography mentor. Discuss with them how they ensure that their geography assessments are ‘fit for purpose’.
- Select one of the key stage 3 units of work you are teaching and design a summative assessment. How could you use the outcomes from this assessment formatively?
- Do I know what geography is to be learnt and what it means for my students to have learnt it?
- Am I clear about the learning objectives and success criteria for this sequence of lessons? Do I frame assessment objectives for each piece of work with these in mind? Do I focus marking on the success criteria?
- Have I given feedback to students? Oral or written? Should I do both? Have I clearly indicated to students ways to improve their learning and the next step to take?
- Am I being too influenced by students who appear busy in lessons but are not actually learning?
- Do I use the information I obtain from assessments to inform decisions I make about future teaching?
- Am I being realistic about the amount of work I can mark? Do I consider alternative ways to check work?
- Do I make assessment interactive with the whole class, or using peer assessment?
Finding out more about assessment
There is a lot to learn about assessment as the talk below illustrates. It raises a number of ideas about assessment that need careful consideration. It was prepared for TeachFirst and outlines some key ideas about assessment, including the idea that validity is a property of inferences, not of tests, or even test scores, and addresses the two main threats to valid test interpretations: construct under-representation and construct-irrelevant variance.
- Watch What every teacher needs to know about assessment by Dylan Wiliam.
- Christodoulou, D. (2018) ‘Assessment: Why it matters and what you need to know’, The profession, Chartered College of Teaching, June.
- Didau,D. (2020) ‘Curriculum related expectations: using the curriculum as a progression model’, on-line.
- Earle, S. (2021) ‘Principles and purposes of assessment in the classroom’, Impact, Chartered College of Teaching, May.
- Eyre, G. (2011) ‘Cities of the future: a cross curricular project’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
- Gardner, D., Weeden, P. and Butt, G. (2015) Assessing progress in Your Key Stage 3 Geography Curriculum (eBook), Geographical Association.
- Harris, T. (2015) ‘Stakes and ladders’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Healy, G. (2020) ‘Placing the geography curriculum at the heart of assessment practice’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Hoare, C. (2023) ‘Well-designed assessment leads to better feedback’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
- Knox, H. and Simmonds, M. (2016) ‘Assessment without levels – a new start’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
- Wood, P. and Sutton, A. (2002) ‘Decision making exercises and assessment in post-16 geography’, Teaching Geography, April.