Autopsies versus check ups: views on assessment

An amazing colleague of mine (@MissDtheteacher) tweeted a great link written by Dr. Justin Tarte (@justintarte) a few weeks ago. As I often do on Twitter, I flagged it as one to skim and scan. Yet this post, 10 questions to ask yourself before giving an assessment, really struck a chord with me. I loved the medical analogy of autopsies (summative assessments) and check ups (formative assessments) – this really resonates with my thinking around assessment.

All three forms of assessment are valid – diagnostic, formative, and summative – and each serves a purpose. My concerns as a secondary school teacher, and a researcher, is that summative assessment is too prevalent and the dominance of summative assessment in schools creates a culture where attaining a grade is more important than learning. When  I was completing my masters research and writing up my dissertation, this was a conclusion that I reached and is supported by seminal and germane literature from around the world.

So the question has to be, why are we, as educators, still so keen to lay our students learning out and dissect it on a metaphorical autopsy table? Wouldn’t we be better to spend our time healing our students, through diagnostic and formative assessment, rather than carving them up to figure out what has happened?

It is widely accepted that an assessment for learning approach is empowering for students – it puts them in the driving seat of their learning and the teacher’s actions are focused on the learning needs of the individuals in their classes.

“Assessment for Learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.”
Assessment Reform Group, Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles, 2002

This sounds like common sense and you would be hard pushed to find a secondary school teacher who does not agree with this ideal – yet why are secondary schools struggling to embed assessment for learning and rather use assessment of learning (summative) or assessment as learning (teaching to the test / performative measures being used to provide feedback)*.  A focus on grades, levels and sublevels, NCEA credits and University Entrance requirements are limitations for our students as they act as barriers for effective assessment – these act as the tools of the coroner as they conduct their autopsy.

So what would the alternative look like? I think that it could be a healthy blend of diagnostic, formative and summative assessment being integrated using the principles of AfL – giving the reins of learning over to the student. The principles of AfL are:

  1. Clear goals / learning objectives – clearly articulated to students
  2. Co-constructed success criteria
  3. Explicit teaching of what quality looks like – through exemplars
  4. Inducting students into the “guild” of the assessor (Sadler, 1989)
  5. Peer and self-assessment
  6. Powerful feedback about closing the gaps in learning as the learning is occurring

Sound easy, right? Sadly, the greatest barrier to effective AfL is the teacher. Teachers all mean well but a truly student-centred approach requires the teacher to let go of the locus of control, to step back and to allow the students time to learn, to make mistakes and to close the gaps in their learning – rather than the jumps the teacher has already planned for. There needs to be a shift in focus – from thinking that the teacher is the sole person who can help the student to acknowledging that the role of the teacher needs to be quite different. They need to making the learning visible, devise learning activities to allow students to work toward their learning goals, showcase different strategies that could be used to close gaps in learning, be one of the people that provides feedback about where the student is going, how they are going and where to next (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). If the teacher does this, they are more akin to the friendly GP giving a check up on learning, rather than the grim, clinical coroner wielding an autopsy saw.

Dr.Farouk - Stethoscope.-Source - Flickr

Dr.Farouk – Stethoscope.-Source – Flickr

* Lorna Earle uses the term ‘Assessment as learning’ in a different manner.


Assessment Online, TKI, Principles of assessment for learning (retrieved 6 Oct. 2014)

Assessment Reform Group, Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles, 2002 (retrieved 6 Oct. 2014)

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H., The Power of Feedback, REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH 2007 77: 81

Sadler, R. D., (1989) ‘Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems’, Instructional Science, 18 (2) pp. 119-144