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Assessment: "Weighing the pig doesn't fatten it"
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas

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Introduction

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).

Knowledge

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).

Skill

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

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

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.

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