What is assessment? According to Ken Robinson in his book Creative Schools, “assessment is the process of making judgments about students’ progress and attainment. […] Assessment has several roles: The first is diagnostic, to help teachers understand students’ aptitude and levels of development. The second is formative, to gather information on students’ work and activities and to support their progress. The third one is summative, which is about making judgements on overall performance at the end of a programme of work.”


So teachers basically have 3 tools at their disposal:

  • A diagnostic tool used to understand students’ aptitude and levels of development.
  • A formative tool used to gather information on students’ work and activities and to support their progress.
  • A summative tool to make judgements on overall performance at the end of a programme of work.

It seems to me that we are spending a lot of time on formative and summative assessments, but not so much on diagnostic assessments…

Also, giving out a letter or number to represent the complexities and “messiness” of the learning process (learning is indeed messy and learning is a process that has no end as such) is an oversimplification of learners’ individual learning path and is a bit inaccurate to say the least…

“Not everything important is measurable and not everything measurable is important.” Elliot Eisner

The best way to go about assessment is to get a starting point (“Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world” said Archimedes). The starting point is what is called “diagnostic” above. Without this diagnostic, how can we devise a teaching and learning plan? It’s a bit like going to the doctor’s and getting medicine even before the doctor had a chance to ask you about your symptoms… Once the diagnostic is done, a number of tools can be used for formative and summative assessments.


  • Interview with parents (children’s passions and favourite ways to learn).
  • Interview with students (previous learning and topics they would like to investigate).
  • Gathering and analysis of information listed above followed by development of new projects linked to achievement goals.
  • Sharing clear learning outcomes with parents and students.
  • General placement test (online test devised by teacher for instance) divided into levels of difficulty so students feel they can achieve something, but can also give up once they’ve reached a level they haven’t yet mastered.


  • See the “Tools to assess” below.
  • Snapshots at the beginning, middle and end (literal “snapshot” if necessary).
  • Analysis of information gathered along the way and redirection (“feuille de route”).
  • Written feedback while students are still progressing.
  • Interview with students: what did you learn? What are you currently learning? What is it you hope you will have mastered/learnt by the end of this unit?


  • Class participation.
  • Portfolios of work (detailed description of work done and reflective comments).
  • Project-based learning (good examples can be found on the High Tech High website).
  • Written essays.
  • Assignments.
  • Self assessment (to help focus on content and classwork rather than rubrics; possible grade recommendation as part of this self assessment).
  • Peer assessment.
  • Teacher assessment.

Now, to be able to say where students are in their learning, we need some sort of map or rather developmental scales with descriptors.

The idea is to be able to communicate the following to the students:

“You are here. You need to go there. I am giving you the map, the tools and the help you need. What do you think is the best route to get there?” 

All education systems are doing that, they all give ways to assess. This being said, they are differences between the tools being used: there are checklists, rating scales, rubrics and finally developmental scales. Let’s have a look at how they work…

Checklists, rating scales, rubrics and developmental scales 



A checklist is a list of items that students have either achieved or not. A checklist is a bit like a light switch in the sense that the answer is either yes or no, done or not done. There is no alternative.

Rating scales


Rating scales are used to record observations (they can also be used as self-assessment or peer assessment tools). Teaching students to use descriptive words, such as alwaysusuallysometimes and never helps them pinpoint specific strengths and/or weaknesses. In a rating scale, the descriptive word are

more important than numbers. Scales relying on adjectives are also less effective because they are subjective (different students could understand the word “excellent” in completely different ways for instance).


Rubrics use a set of criteria to evaluate a student’s performance. They consist of a fixed measurement scale and detailed description of the characteristics for each level of performance. These descriptions focus on the quality of the product or performance and not the quantity. Rubrics are commonly used to evaluate student performance with the intention of including the result in a grade for reporting purposes.

Developmental scales: 


Developmental scales are similar to rubrics in the sense that they combine measurement scales and detailed description; however, they are different in the sense that they also include progression. Developmental scales take a long time to be put together, but they are a very powerful tool which is as far removed from standardised testing as possible. Those scales allow students to go through a powerful assessment  process that can have a huge impact on them (as shown by the Primary Language Record case mentioned in Ken Robinson’s book). To get a better idea as to how this can be developed and used, click here.

Now, let’s have a look at a few useful assessment tools…