What is Assessment?

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

-Shakespeare; As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII

This piece is written by Decolonise the Curriculum Associate and Educational Pyschologist, Dr Sarif Alrai.

Ask any psychologist, and the first thing you’ll hear is something about assessment being a process. In all my time working with schools, the narrative around assessments has been a ‘timestamp[1]’; on the 35th of Nevurary, Kanye scored in the 3rd percentile and had an age-equivalent score of 7 years three months – aged 14 years seven months. The problem that occurs when you try to marry the idea of assessment being a process with the concept of a quantifiable ‘ability’, is you lose the essence of the process. In that sense, assessments are a lot like plays, and when we focus on punchy quotes and ‘take-home messages’ such as ‘ability’ scores, we forget the nuanced elements of the scene. Many of you will have seen the quote by Shakespeare and not needed the citation to know who wrote the line; some may have even been able to recall the play. How many of you, be honest, even care about the rest of this scene?

So, we agree, assessment is a process – but what does that mean? In short, assessment is the systemic approach of recording data about an individual or object to determine change over time. Many of you will agree about change over time, but how many of you stopped to ask yourself about whose data? What data? How valid or reliable is that data?

When Assessment Goes Wrong

Ask any psychologist, and the first thing you’ll hear is something about assessment being a process. In all my time working with schools, the narrative around assessments has been a ‘timestamp[1]’; on the 35th of Nevurary, Kanye scored in the 3rd percentile and had an age-equivalent score of 7 years three months – aged 14 years seven months. The problem that occurs when you try to marry the idea of assessment being a process with the concept of a quantifiable ‘ability’, is you lose the essence of the process. In that sense, assessments are a lot like plays, and when we focus on punchy quotes and ‘take-home messages’ such as ‘ability’ scores, we forget the nuanced elements of the scene. Many of you will have seen the quote by Shakespeare and not needed the citation to know who wrote the line; some may have even been able to recall the play. How many of you, be honest, even care about the rest of this scene?

So, we agree, assessment is a process – but what does that mean? In short, assessment is the systemic approach of recording data about an individual or object to determine change over time. Many of you will agree about change over time, but how many of you stopped to ask yourself about whose data? What data? How valid or reliable is that data?

The first assessment that is recognisable as what we would today describe as an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test was designed around the early 1900s in France by Alfred Binet. Binet’s goal was to identify ‘slow’ children so that they could be placed in special education schools[2]. This test was then picked up by Stanford University, adapted, and published as the Stanford-Binet Test (1916). The test was riddled with flaws and biases. But this served as useful to the nefarious purposes of the assessors whose goal it was to identify IQ as a genetic trait; leading to the field of eugenics—file eugenics under reprehensible and immoral right alongside phrenology[3] (eugenics’ older cousin). Eugenics was serious business and was championed by institutions who in today’s world are considered standard-bearers; Sir Francis Galton, University of Cambridge, Trinity College, and one of my alma maters King’s College London. These early IQ tests, being as invalid as they were, were able to ‘prove’ the genetic traits of intelligence which allowed the worthless conclusions of the superiority of Whites over Blacks – leading to the justification of Black people being enslaved—sentiments and statements still prevalent in far-right ideology today.

But surely, I hear you sigh under your heavy and now furrowed brow that was over a century ago – we’ve learned lots since then. Well, less than 50 years ago…

Before and after school desegregation, black, chicano (gendered in original), and poor children are more likely to be labelled as mentally retarded and be placed in programs for the educable retarded than are anglo or upper status children. Similarly, black, chicano, and poor children are less likely to be seen as physically handicapped. These findings are a result of the use of intelligence tests as the means by which children are labelled mentally retarded. IQ tests ought to be eliminated from the schools because of factors 1) intrinsic to the tests themselves, 2) characteristic of the testing process, 3) related to the societal and educational connotations that the test has, and 4), as seen data reported, the “institutional racism” which is a consequence of their use.

-Beeghley and Butler, 1974

Mani, Mullainathan, Shafir, & Zhao, (2013) showed that there was a direct impact of poverty on IQ scores – an average of 13 points. For reference, the ‘average’ IQ is 90-110. Other factors known to impact assessments of this nature are; mental health of the individual, mental health of the assessor, the assessor’s understanding of the assessment tool, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), family circumstances, an individual’s relationship with school, an individual’s relationship with their teacher, an individual’s relationship with the assessor, school attendance, language skills, cultural differences between assessor and the individual being assessed, testing environment, fatigue, hunger, day-to-day stressors (such as an argument or altercation), self-esteem (Pearson, 2019). I stopped for brevity; the list continues! You may wish to ask the question, why bother at all? Take a few moments to think on the answer to that question before continuing – it will help with the next section.

What Can We Do About This?

How many of the listed factors above are within the control of an individual? Now ask yourself, of the individuals you assess which learners most readily come to mind when you think about these statements? As you progress through the list, notice how many of the learners who come to mind are Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic. It is important to remember; this is not your fault! This is the result of a system that is at best poorly designed and at worse racist. The odds are stacked against particular cohorts. You have an opportunity to do something different.

First and foremost, ask yourself these two questions; what is the purpose of this assessment process? And what is my role in this process? All good assessment is conducted in the same way as all good research – so I encourage to use the mantra ‘what is my assessment question?’ That is, what information do you seek to understand as you go through this process. If your answer is “I want to know Kanye’s reading age”, you’ve missed the point! I appreciate that given the current climate of teachers’ workloads, it’s difficult to find the time to answer these questions. But there never were halcyon days when teachers had all the time in the world to assess children. And so, we come back to our friend Shakespeare. Using the starting point of the purpose of assessment and our role in the process, we see that shining a spotlight on Kanye as a discreet object, untouched and unfazed by the stresses and strains of growing up as a Person of Colour (PoC) in 2020. We join Kanye on stage and acknowledge the role of other players in Kanye’s world. The barriers and roadblocks ignored by the assessments. We take time to understand Kanye’s perception of his role as ‘merely’ a player.

Those who assess are in the business of relationships. The single biggest determining factor in the success of a talk-based therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client. A phenomenon described as the Therapeutic Alliance (Martin, Garske, & Davis, 2000). It stands to reason that in the process of assessment, the alliance between assessor and the individual being assessed is equally valuable.


[1]In the interest of openness, even though psychologists espouse the notion of assessments being a process – we love a good quantifiable number ourselves. 

[2]Very different to what we would consider ‘special provision’ by today’s standards.  

[3]The practice of determining personality and character traits based on the bumps on your head.

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