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A thumbnail historical perspective on assessment


Assessment- a controversial issue in education?

"The tendency of the examination system to arrest growth, to deaden life, to paralyse the higher faculties.. to involve education in an atmosphere of unreality and self-deception.' (From Edmond Holmes, What is and what might be, circa 1910)

For those learning to be teachers, it is helpful to be aware that there has been a revolution in assessment in education over the past 20 years or so- Pandas, CATS, YELIS, ALIS, SATS, level descriptors, profile components, even Ofsted itself, are fairly recent developments. There are also very different opinions about recent trends in educational assessment, with some arguing that the increase in the volume of assessment data available to schools, teachers and parents is a good thing, and others arguing that too much time is being spent 'weighing the pig instead of fattening it', and that the administrative burdens of assessment, recording and reporting are having a negative effect on teacher morale. The following are a few 'snapshots' of aspects of assessment, from the past to the present.

'To remember and recite is to learn'- In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries, a catechetical approach to learning was common, with pupils required to memorise and recite pasages such as the following:

'Englishwomen are very beautiful; they enjoy more rights and greater privileges than those in other countries, especially the married women.' (Lockman, J. 1730, A New History of England, p. 20)

The 1912 equivalent of the 4/98 Standards:

ass1Less complicated than 4/98, less time consuming to administer, any disadvantages?

'In the early part of the (nineteenth) century, two schools of educational psychology, one stressing the generic nature of knowledge, the other focusing on what was unique about different domains, competed for adherents. Chicago's Charles Judd, who stressed the distinctive 'psychologies' of the different subjects in the curriculum could not muster the same appeal as the all-embracing, stimulus-response behaviorism of Columbia's E.L. Thorndike. The battle raged for many years, but as the historian of education Ellen Condliffe Lagemann succinctly put it, Thorndike won.' (Sam Wineburg, 1997, Beyond "Breadth and Depth": subject matter knowledge and assessment, Theory into practice, Vol. 36, No. 4, p. 256).

What this meant was that there was a move towards 'breaking down' knowledge/learning into 'bits', and getting learners to learn all the bits, with the idea that when they had learned all the 'bits', they would 'know it all'. You can see the influence of this in the original version of the assessment model for the National Curriculum (see 'History and the 45 boxes below), and in the 4/98 Standards- Let's break teaching down into all the bits you need to be a good teacher and then check that trainees can do all the bits. For the limitations of this approach, see Annex B of the 4/98 Standards, the Standards for ICT in subject teaching.

It is easy to poke fun at some of the less carefully thought through assessment initiatives of recent years, but it is salutory to be aware of the very primitive arrangements that pertained before the recent revolution in assessment.

Two examples of assessment in the secondary school in the 1960s

An example of 'Cricket Score' assessment (1970s) and early moves towards 'breaking subjects down into components'

Some developments in the 1980s



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