Teachers’ Beliefs and Assessment Capabilities

It is a well established truism, that our beliefs as teachers impact our practice. This idea was further reinforced in reading Gavin Brown’s article Teachers’ conceptions of assessment: implications for policy and professional development (2004). This article examined teachers’ beliefs about assessment and how it impacted their implementation of a new assessment initiative.

According to Brown the four main conceptions identified amongst primary school teachers were:

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

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, I now acknowledge 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 PYP coordinator I often thought standardised assessment was a waste of time too. The time between the testing and the time we got the results and could implement action was too great. And until I learned about 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/testing assessment data to inform their image of themselves as learners.

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

Brown goes on to say that “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).

I recently led a number of workshop sessions with the teachers in my school to explore our conceptions of assessment. The goal was to make each teacher’s beliefs visible to her/himself, so we could reflect on whether these beliefs were in alignment with our school’s assessment policy or whether we were subconsciously holding onto conceptions that were negatively impacting student learning. The ultimate goal was to begin developing a shared vision of assessment, as the initial part of our two year professional learning plan to improve assessment in our school.

We had a number of fascinating conversations. One big debate was whether students should be allowed to redo a summative assessment task. One group of staff were firmly on the “yes they should” side, another large group was undecided, and a small but tenacious group insisted it wasn’t fair. This conversation allowed us to crack an old assessment perspective that many of us subconsciously held: that assessment is for separating out the students who ‘can’ from the students who ‘cannot’. When we held this conception up and examined it, we all agreed that we don’t really believe that is the purpose of assessment. We believe that all children can learn, what may vary is the amount of time they need, the strategies they may have to use, and the amount of effort they may have to invest.

How might our conceptions of assessment impact on our development of the twelve assessment capabilities?

From the perspective of my staff, I think the capabilities that will require the biggest shifts in beliefs and practice are:

Give feedback to improve student learning: This is the focus for our professional learning this academic year. Each teaching team makes agreements during the planning phase of our units of inquiry as to what formative assessment data they will gather, but rarely have I seen evidence that this data is then used to provide the student with feedback about how to improve. We have purchased a copy of Susan Brookhart’s book How to Give Effective Feedback to your Students, second edition (2017) for each teacher and are working through it together. Our goal is to develop a common language as a staff for providing feedback and embed the practice into our daily work with students.

Help students development assessment literacy: This idea challenges current practice and this shift from teacher as assessment leader to the teacher and student sharing this role lies upon a number of premises. First, it assumes that teachers think students have a role in assessment and are capable of evaluating their own learning. Indeed, studies show (Rodgers, 2018; Braund & DeLuca’s, 2018), it takes time and active support before students are capable of doing it. This then poses the ‘time challenge’ – there is so much to be taught in school, is it worth the investment needed to help students develop assessment literacy?

The second assumption is that teachers know how to help students develop assessment literacy. Braund & DeLuca (2018) found that the teachers in their study saw formative assessment as something that was done to students and not as a pedagogical stance for learning “where assessment becomes a fundamental driver of teaching and learning, and where students actively participate in the development and use of classroom assessment criteria and processes” (82). The teachers in the study identified the need for more professional development and access to resources to help them understand how to empower students’ development of self-regulation and metacognition as necessary skills for participating in their own assessment.

Reflect on data to improve teaching: This idea also lies on a couple of assumptions. One, it assumes teachers know how to interpret data and make connections between it and their teaching strategies. Two, it assumes teachers want feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching and three, that they will know how to respond. Often times teachers stick with one or two strategies for teaching certain content because they are the only ones they know.

Popham (2018) dedicated a chapter of his book Assessment Literacy for Educators in a Hurry to the importance of formative assessment. He contends that one of the reasons formative assessment has not been implemented as thoroughly in the United States as it should be is the amount of time it takes to do formative assessment well (98). He argues that teachers should begin with small steps – adding one or two formative assessment tasks to their teaching plan and then add more as their confidence increases. He also recommends that teachers focus on using the feedback to inform their teaching practice first and then involving students in the process later (99). I think this is practical advice, even though pedagogically I want it happening with students tomorrow! While we do have the advantage of working in collaborative teams, meaning we can share the planning load, at the end of the day, it is the teachers who must interpret the data and determine what it means in their class with their students.

Standards of quality assessment: Of all of the capabilities, I suspect this one will require the most support in developing. Or perhaps it is my own prejudice at play as it is the most challenging part for me. It will require the attainment of new knowledge and skills, as well as new ways of working in our teaching teams. While we currently do a little moderation, we do not go through a formal review process of our assessments for reliability or fairness. I have introduced one new protocol this year (student work analysis) to use with teaching teams to help us determine if our assessment task is measuring our intended outcomes and identifying what we need to do to help our students progress, but it is a time consuming process that I have only be able to complete with one team, and it is one of my assessment savvy teams. While attaining an understanding of these standards will need to form part of our assessment action plan, we will need to consider very carefully where in the implementation plan they go.

Motivation: I will definitely need to do more reading about motivation as it pertains to adults. The potential for assessment data to de-motivate my teachers is high, particularly if the results on an assessment are lower for their class than for another. Also, motivation rests on a convergence between the level of the task challenge and the abilities of the learner. How much do teachers need to know to be able to deal with assessment data in a way that engages them, where the challenge is sufficient but not overwhelming?

What this means for me:

Hopefully we can leverage off the work we did in our earlier assessment workshops about our beliefs to help teachers understand the importance of using assessment data to improve their teaching and ultimately their student’s learning. We are fortunate in that formative assessment has always been a part of our assessment culture. What we probably don’t do is look at it deeply enough or examine it as a teaching team often enough to have it inform our practice that effectively. We currently use it largely to determine how well students have understood the different lines of inquiry and the learning outcomes associated with them. Some of my teachers use this information to determine reteaching, but it is not a well-established practice.

The other advantage we have is that we work in high functioning teams as we have devoted considerable energy to establishing a culture of collaboration over the last 4 years. Within teams there is very little resistance to looking at student work together for moderation purposes and sharing ideas on how to address the learning needs that are identified. My current plan is to continue using the student work analysis protocol with the remaining teams and watch for any resistance or lack of engagement in looking at student work. Hopefully this will give me a better sense of how steep this assessment mountain is going to be for us.


Finally, I will also review our staff self-assessments to determine how teachers report they use assessment currently. There may be some teachers already using assessment to inform learning that I can mobilise to support other teachers who show less confidence or knowledge about how to use it for this purpose.

My next post: Using Data in Teacher Inquiry Groups


Braund, H., & DeLuca, C. (2018). Elementary students as active agents in their learning: an empirical study of the connections between assessment practices and student metacognition. The Australian Educational Researcher, 45(1), 65-85.

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

Nicol, D. J., & Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006). Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice. Studies in Higher Education, 31(2), 199-218.

Popham, W.J. (2018). Assessment Literacy for Educators in a Hurry. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Rodgers, C. (2018). Descriptive feedback: student voice in K-5 classrooms. The Australian Educational Researcher, 45(1), 87-102.

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