Choosing what type of test works best

Tests are widely used in schools. They include teacher-created tests either written by teachers or perhaps created by selecting questions from a ready-made online bank of questions and also a wide range of tests available from commercial suppliers. There are different types of test available too and what works best depends on why the test is being used i.e. what information the teacher wants from the assessment.

Tests for day-to-day assessment

Teachers need regular information about how their pupils are doing so that they can change their teaching to ensure it is effective. This is also a key focus of Ofsted inspections with inspectors wanting to see evidence of how schools are using assessment to improve teaching and raise attainment and to monitor the progress of all children as well as that of specific groups. For this type of assessment tests linked to specific curriculum areas are useful as they enable teachers to concentrate on particular areas. This makes it easier to identify the strengths and weaknesses that children have and the progress they are making.

This type of test can be used summatively and formatively. Teachers can use such tests at the beginning of a unit of work to assess prior learning and during topics to see how children are progressing and to identify whether further work may be needed. The diagnostic information from the tests enables teachers to make appropriate interventions and provide support and challenge as soon as possible. These tests can also be used summatively e.g. at the end of a topic, term or year to gain data that can then be used for reporting.

A key benefit of this type of test is that they are easy to use and teachers can use them flexibly to suit their teaching. The Rising Stars Assessment Progress Tests are one example of this kind of test.

Standardised tests

What are standardised tests?

Standardised tests assess how a pupil is performing compared to pupils in other schools. These tests are primarily used for summative assessment although some also provide diagnostic information. Usually the questions in a standardised test are not tied to a particular curriculum but assess generic content and skills. Examples of standardised tests used by many primary schools are PIPS and CAT tests.

How do they work?

In order to get reliable results from standardised tests they must be administered following precise procedures and instructions. Usually the tests must be taken at a fixed point, for example at the beginning or end of a specified school year. There is no flexibility in these arrangements and failure to follow them can affect the reliability of the results.

Standardised tests work using ‘norms’. In order to calculate norms, the tests are initially administered to a precisely defined sample of the intended population of test takers. For example, if the test was designed for use with Year 5 pupils, the sample would be a representative group of Year 5 pupils. The results from this group give the norms i.e. information about the performance of the sample. When using standardised tests teachers use the Tables of Norms provided with the tests to compare their own pupils’ results with that of the sample or sometimes this is done for them by the test provider.

When are they useful?

Standardised tests are very useful when schools want to know how pupils are performing compared to pupils in other schools. However they need to be used as part of a range of assessment tools in schools – they provide insufficient breadth and depth and are not sufficiently flexible to be used as the only tool.

Standardised tests usually test general, age appropriate content and skills. This means they are not a useful mechanism to assess how pupils are performing against a specific curriculum, for example the detailed requirements of the Programme of Study for the National Curriculum.

Standardised tests must be sat at a fixed point in time and are usually summative. They are not therefore suitable for day-to-day classroom use when teachers need the flexibility to be able to use formative and summative assessment at a time to suit their teaching and the learning of their pupils.


formative assessment, key stage 1, key stage 2, standardised scores, standardised tests, summative assessment

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