Conceptions of Assessment

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I recently read Gavin Brown’s article Teachers’ conceptions of assessment: implications for policy and professional development (2004). In this article four main conceptions were identified amongst primary school teachers in New Zealand:

  • assessment for improving teaching and learning
  • assessment for school accountability
  • assessment for student accountability
  • assessment is irrelevant

I am an IBPYP workshop leader and one of the conceptual understandings addressed in almost every workshop is “Individual teachers’ beliefs and experiences related to teaching affect the way they perform” (International Baccalaureate, 2014). It may seem obvious, but oftentimes we are not conscious of our beliefs, they operate in the background. Certainly until I read Brown’s article if anyone had asked me what my conceptions of assessment were, I would have said it was used to improve student learning and to evaluate the effectiveness of the school’s programmes.

However, after reading the article I reflected that there absolutely were times when I thought (and still think) assessment was irrelevant, particularly assessments that didn’t impact on what my students were going to be learning the next day or next week. Until I was a curriculum coordinator I often thought standardised assessment was a waste of time too. Again, the time between the testing and the time we got the results and could implement action was too great.

And until I took PME 800 Self-regulated Learning, I had only a nebulous idea of how assessment connected with student accountability, and most of the connections were negative. So many times I have seen really capable learners shut down under testing conditions because they cannot access all the strategies they usually use in their daily learning lives. In my own experiences as a student, I always worked to maintain good marks in school, but I was never particularly motivated by them. I knew how to play the “give the teacher what s/he wants” game, so marks seemed largely arbitrary and not a true reflection of my learning. Given these experiences I am sure that my classroom assessment practices were about reducing student’s reliance on formal assessment data to inform their image of themselves as learners.

And this is the point Brown tries to make in his article.

“Thus, all pedagogical acts, including teachers’ perceptions and evaluations of student behaviour and performance (i.e., assessment), are affected by the conceptions teachers have about many educational artefacts, such as teaching, learning, assessment, curriculum, and teacher efficacy. It is critical that such conceptions and the relationships of those conceptions among and between each other, are made explicit and visible. This is especially so if it is considered prudent or advisable that teachers’ conceptions be changed, which, of course, is the point of professional development activities (Borko et al., 1997).” (Brown, 303).

Back to my current context for inquiry. My goal is to prepare a series of workshops and support systems for staff to help them implement our school assessment policy and improve the teaching-assessing-planning cycle. This will require that some of these conceptions be addressed and changed. How can I elicit this information in a meaningful way that will allow teachers to make their beliefs apparent to themselves? How do I then help them understand that some of their conceptions may have been having a negative impact on student learning?


Brown, G. (2004). Teachers’ conceptions of assessment: implications for policy and professional development. Assessment in Education, 11(3), 301-318.

International Baccalaureate (2014). Global Session Guidelines: Teaching and Learning, Category 2.

3 thoughts on “Conceptions of Assessment

  1. Getting staff on board with new ideas and research can definitely be a struggle. I know of one colleague, recently retired, who resignedly ignored every new initiative as it came along in the last fifteen years because (as he told me) “There’s always something new and none of it makes a difference.” The cynicism and desire to be left alone in his classroom to do his thing was very real.

    I think, because we’re adults and professionals, it can be really easy for us to forget that we are also, after all, *students*. We benefit from many of the same incremental approaches, motivations, engagement strategies, etc. that our students do, particularly when we’re feeling weighed down or overwhelmed by the demands of the job. For example: ten years ago I attended a full-day PD session in a cafeteria which involved a 30-40 minute slide show of statistics. The benches were uncomfortable, there were few visuals to help us conceptualize what we were seeing, and no breaks from 9 am to nearly noon. If I had used that format for a lesson, my students would have been dissatisfied and inattentive as we were, and definitely not open to taking ownership of the initiative we were being directed to undertake. What’s changed since then is that our staff meetings and PD are no longer in such uncomfortable surroundings, nor do they take so long: our meetings are carefully organized to be as short as possible and include immediate application of the ideas, data, etc., using collaboration. Our administration is seeing PD more and more as a way to demonstrate methods collaboration, use of technology, and other 21st Century skills that we can use in the classroom because we’ve tried them on our own, in our capacity as professional students.

    Therefore, my suggestion is this: try starting with an icebreaker activity that makes the variety of perspectives on assessment clear, something that gets everyone moving. Put one statement on assessment at one end of the room and its opposite on the other end, and ask them to arrange themselves physically where they most agree with the given statement. Make some observations together regarding the wider implications of their stances: how does this viewpoint affect the atmospheres of their classrooms? (Their responses wouldn’t need to be vocalized, necessarily — no need for anyone to feel attacked.) You could provide a few case studies or student profiles and in groups, have them look at how the student would interpret the spectrum of teacher attitudes regarding assessment. Acknowledging the existence and variation of views, and their impacts, may well be helpful in beginning a reflective dialogue. Then, maybe they could review the assessment policy and choose something to improve in their practices as individuals, pairs, or in small groups — the latter could help in keeping each other accountable and comparing results. Small, successful changes over a few months (one or two units of study) might build their self-efficacy and begin to change school culture in the direction you want to see.

  2. Just to clarify, are you primarily talking about large-scale standardized testing when you refer to your and perhaps your colleagues’ conception of assessment? Large scale assessments are often seen as a waste of time by students, teachers and sometimes parents because of they don’t provide the diagnostic or formative information about student’s learning or to inform teachers’ practice. The issue here is that large-scale assessments are not intended to produce these kinds of results. There is a drive in Ontario now to clarify the purposes of both classroom and large-scale assessments. Perhaps this is where you might like to start in your school? Conduct a survey to determine what people’s perceptions are about the purpose of assessment and what they expect from them; both classroom and large-scale.

    Personally, I lean toward seeing classroom assessment as providing opportunities to enhance my impact as a teacher and that of my colleagues so that we can have the largest possible effect on our students’ learning. Seen in this light, assessment could never be construed as pointless. Rather to the contrary, it allows for a perpetual cycle of improvement both in teacher expertise and student progress toward proficiency not necessarily achievement. These ideas are not new, I have gleaned them from John Hattie’s Visible Learning ( You can see an example of how I and my colleagues have put this into practice on my website (here: when we started an “impact cycle” that ended only because I changed schools and so did my role at my new school. Otherwise, we may have continued with the line of inquiry or spin-offs of the original well into the unforeseeable future. The assessments we administer to our students at the classroom level are to presented and even co-created within teacher inquiry groups allowing for the measurement our teaching impact and providing data and discussion points among other things that drive the collaborative teacher inquiry. I’m sorry if I’m preaching to the choir here, haha. I’m writing with a certain audience in mind, not necessarily you.

    Here is another view on how to use classroom assessment to improve student learning that might be worthwhile sharing:

    Perhaps if your teachers are presented with this view of assessment they will more likely to identify their conceptions, find their role in assessment, realize how their conception might be helpful or harmful, and perhaps jump on board.

    1. Hi Ryan,
      Thanks for your feedback. I wasn’t thinking about large-scale assessments specifically, although as a classroom teacher I often find them a waste of time as I never had an opportunity to look at them as a collective to draw conclusions about where our students are. As a school administrator, I think they are vital in helping us evaluate how we are doing as a school, as a collection of teachers and programmes and students. I’ve planned a session for early in the school year to look at our ACER data and determine what we need to focus on improving. I meet with each teaching team every week, so we will use this data to help us in our planning and teaching and in exploring what other supports teachers need.

      I agree that helping my teachers to confront their conceptions of assessment is a necessary first step. I like the idea of having them look at various assessment tasks, determining how they’d use them and what they’d help them find out about their students. I feel they could do this relatively easily, but it would would be a useful starting point for opening up what we don’t do well and clarifying a goal.

      Thanks for the video link – his comment about letting the students who felt the impact work collaboratively on a different task while we reteach a small group might help teachers get around the “what do I do with the rest of the class” issue. I think many teachers either feel that they’re not doing their job by not actively instructing the group who got it, or, they have not set up their classroom management systems sufficiently well that students can be left to work in collaborative groups. Maybe I will need to include a session on “what do we do with the others” because there are lots of options, such as having them re-teach, or teach on, or engage in collaborative projects. I think it’s also worth time looking at Hattie’s findings as a group. I’ve discussed his work many times and we’ve looked at some of his resources, but perhaps looking at the list and realising how many of them are assessment related would also help shift perceptions.

      I meet with each teaching team every week and we engage in collaborative planning and develop assessment tasks together. We do reflect and document how we could improve our summative assessment tasks in the future, but not our formative. I think this would be worth adding into our planning cycle.

      Thanks for all the ideas and suggestions – very helpful!

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