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People within the educational community—policymakers, schools, administrators, teachers and students—use assessments for different purposes. This issue of CDTL Brief presents some discussions on the issues surrounding Assessment.

March 2003, Vol. 6, No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
What is Quality in Assessment Practice?
Mr Dennis Sale
Section Head, Educational & Staff Development Department,
Singapore Polytechnic

Introduction & Context

One of the most significant developments in education over recent years has been an increasing focus on the importance of assessment and the need to ensure quality in assessment practice. A number of interrelated factors have contributed to this development.

Firstly, greater pressure on educational institutions to be accountable for their products has made assessment high profile. We need to be able to justify public expenditure in terms of value for money outputs. The quality of teaching and the cost-effective use of resources are rightly important issues in this context. However, it is assessment that largely defines the value of accredited educational programmes. If assessment practice lacks quality, what value can be placed on the qualifications accredited?

Secondly, major curriculum developments in competency-based programmes and flexible learning initiatives, have shifted the curriculum emphasis from issues of delivery to that of valid, reliable and cost-effective assessment. It is increasingly recognised that people learn from a variety of contexts and media in their own ways and at their own pace. What is important is being able to ensure that we can measure learning accurately, irrespective of how that learning has been derived.

Thirdly, as institutions compete for student numbers or ‘types of student’, we need to show clearly that student needs and interests will be professionally catered for. Assessment, in particular, must be seen to be well constituted and fair. In assessing learners, we are making claims to know them in important ways. If our judgements are not accurate, what levels of disservice are we doing to these learners as well as to the community we serve?

Finally, in this introduction, it is important to emphasise the key role that assessment plays in the learning process (Boud, 1988; Ramsden, 1992). People will typically learn what they are assessed on and learn in ways to meet those assessment demands. As Ramsden (1992) once wrote:

From our student’s point of view, assessment always defines the actual curriculum...Assessment sends messages about the standard and amount of work required, and what aspects of the syllabus are most important (pp. 187–8).

Given this relationship, quality in assessment is inevitably concerned with ‘quality learning outcomes’—however defined—because these determine the teaching and learning processes. For example, if our assessment activities lack interest for learners and encourage rote learning, this is likely to lead to ‘surface approaches’ to learning as documented by Marton, et al. (1984). In these situations learners will do what is necessary for the purposes of assessment, but are unlikely to derive both a real understanding of the subject or a genuine interest in it. Similarly, teachers are likely to teach to such requirements and largely transmit knowledge through didactic means using rote-learning activities for reinforcement.

As a result, this has led to greater advocacy for more authentic forms of assessment (Tombari & Borich, 1999), based on premises of more meaningful learning and improvements in the conditions in which learning occurs (e.g. learner motivation, integration with instruction, ongoing formative assessment). Hence, when we talk about quality in assessment practice, there are equally valid concerns about the nature and usefulness of what is being learned as well as the constitution and conduct of the assessment systems that direct assessment practices at the institutional level.

In this short paper, it is not possible to explore all quality issues in detail. Consequently, I will only outline an organising framework from which standards can be derived for promoting, evaluating and improving the quality of assessment practices.

A Framework for Developing Quality in Assessment

The assessment process typically encompasses three interrelated stages:

  • Producing and reviewing a scheme of assessment

  • Judging and making decisions based on assessment evidence

  • Providing feedback on assessment decisions

In developing quality in assessment practices, it is necessary to identify and implement thoughtfully the activities and processes involved in each of these stages. The following criteria, based on established knowledge of assessment practice and my own experience in developing assessment standards in the UK, are offered:

  1. Producing and reviewing a scheme of assessment
  • The scheme specifies the assessment methods to be used, their purpose, the marks to be allocated, and the timing of assessments.

  • The selected assessment methods are valid for assessing the knowledge, skills and attitudinal components specified, and at the appropriate levels.

  • The assessment methods provide fair and reliable assessment opportunities.

  • The assessment methods are well constructed, meeting established design criteria for each item type.

  • The assessment methods employed are sufficiently varied to encourage learner motivation and enable them to display their learning in different ways.

  • The assessment methods are planned to make effective use of time and resources in producing sufficiency of evidence.

  • The key aspects of the assessment scheme are explained to learners.

  • Opportunities are provided for learners to seek clarification on assessment requirements.

  • Ways to ensure the authenticity of assessment evidence are identified.

  • The scheme is reviewed at agreed times and updated as necessary.
  1. Judging and making decisions based on assessment evidence
  • Learners are provided with clear access to assessment.

  • The assessment evidence is judged accurately against the agreed assessment criteria.

  • Only the criteria specified for the assessment are used to judge assessment evidence.

  • The assessment decisions are based on all relevant assessment evidence available.

  • Inconsistencies in assessment evidence are clarified and resolved.

  • The requirements to ensure authenticity are maintained.
  1. Providing feedback on assessment decisions
  • The assessment decisions are promptly communicated to learners.

  • Feedback to learners is clear, constructive and seeks to promote future learning.

  • Formative assessment is planned and ongoing.

  • Learners are encouraged to seek clarification and advice.

  • The assessment decisions are appropriately recorded to meet verification requirements.

  • Records are legible, accurate, stored securely and promptly passed to the next stage of the recording/certification process.


In this paper, I have argued the necessity for quality in assessment, both for the credibility of the curriculum we offer and for the quality of student learning in those curricula. Hopefully, the framework provided offers a valid and practical base from which to produce standards for quality in assessment and to explore some of the wider concerns relating to the quality of learning outcomes.


Boud, D. (Ed.). (1988). Developing Student Autonomy in Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Marton, F. (1984). The Experience of Learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.
Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Tombari, M. & Borich, G. (1999). Authentic Assessment in the Classroom. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

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Inside this issue
Assessing Education Quality: Measures and Processes
Addressing Students’ Fears about Examinations
Student Assessment in Problem-based Learning: A Challenge Beyond Reliability and Validity
Implementing Effective Peer Assessment
Self-and Peer-assessments — Vehicles to Improve Learning
What is Quality in Assessment Practice?