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Learning and Teaching should meet the needs of the Whole Learner:

 Diagnostic Assessment




Summative Assessment

Independent Learning

Diagnostic Assessment

Emotional Intelligence


Formative Assessment is the process by which on-going judgements are made, in many different ways, about pupils’ work in order to help them progress; Summative Assessment is the final test of how well a pupil has learnt a block of work. [See Toolkit sections on these].

Diagnostic Assessment involves making judgements as to how a pupil is performing against a predetermined set of criteria.  This kind of assessment must be linked to further work which will tackle problems identified.  There is thus an overlap between formative and diagnostic assessment.  Internationally, there are moves to implement formal, standardised, objective types of diagnostic assessment; it is also possible to view it in a more informal way.  It must be remembered, however, that no diagnostic test is 100% accurate.  Teachers should balance a test result against their own professional judgement of aptitude.

Points arising from Research


Effective diagnostic assessment improves learning and teaching.


There is some evidence that teachers do not adapt teaching as much as they might, following diagnostic assessment.

Key Elements of Diagnostic Assessment

The nature of diagnostic assessment:


It must be linked to pre-determined learning objectives


It should be systematically built in to the curriculum


It should identify next steps for the pupil


Pupils should be involved in the identification of learning needs in this process


The teacher should modify the course and/or teaching approaches in light of the assessment information


However the assessment is done, care should be taken to ensure that it is adequate in scope, valid, reliable, practical and acceptable to those involved


Testing should be fair, taking account of equal opportunities issues


A test’s instructions and administration must be clear and not distort results


Diagnostic assessment may test key skills taught in the curriculum or it may test key skills of a more basic or absolute nature, which the curriculum is expected to develop


Pupils should understand why and how they are to be tested

Formal approaches:


Many proprietary tests exist to assess particular skills


Such tests are used to give objective, standardised data on pupil skill levels, though researchers differ as to the validity of many of them


Some analysts make the distinction between diagnostic assessment and competency-based assessment:-

  • In this model, diagnostic assessment involves testing components of underlying skills out of the context of the curriculum

  • This process depends crucially on how the skills/components are identified


Formal assessment may be organised in different ways:

  • within a school, a department or an individual classroom

  • within an education authority

  • on a national basis


Formal approaches lend themselves to online distance-learning work

Informal approaches:


Informal diagnostic assessment can take place in the classroom in various ways:

  • on-going course work may be examined closely

  • specific assignments may be set with a view to assessing key skills

  • occasional tests items may be given to pupils on an ad hoc basis

  • a whole class, a group or an individual pupil may be assessed


This type of assessment must also be systematic and follow the principles outlined above


Informal assessment will be closely related to precise curricular learning objectives


This type of assessment is popular, but there is some evidence that there may be difficulties with it:

  • it may miss some problems and is more prone to inconsistency between teachers

  • it may identify problems which would not have occurred with a more formal, standardised assessment


However, it does provide opportunity for flexibility, with different types of questioning being possible, such as one-to-one oral questioning


Some schools have made use of “testing corners” in classrooms or “test folders” for such assessment work

Ways in which diagnostic assessment can be used


Internationally, there is emphasis on initial testing at pre-school stages


This approach provides a baseline for future assessment


It can be used by a school or education authority to track progress, to evaluate the curriculum and to measure value-added factors


Testing can be administered centrally with the following advantages:

  • there is enhanced consistency
  • there is a good level of standardisation
  • there is opportunity for gaining information about the whole institution
  • everyone is on a “level playing field”

It can be administered within the school with the following advantages:

  • the school is more likely to feel a sense of ownership

  • there may be an increased sense of relevance

  • it is easier logistically


Some advice warns against using test data to label pupils


However, data may be used to help pupils identify targets within curriculum assessment structures - though data should be used sensitively


As a teacher evaluates test data, there may be implications for class organisation and composition, organisation within the classroom and deployment of staff


When a teacher has taken account of test data and amended teaching as appropriate, it is necessary to have a mechanism for tracking progress over a period of time


Such tracking of progress should take place from year to year and as pupils transfer from teacher to teacher

Reflection and Discussion

What diagnostic procedures do you carry out in your classroom work?

How does your teaching alter in the light of diagnostic assessment?

To what extent are you aware of each pupil’s assessment history?

Are there any ways in which you could make greater use of diagnostic procedures to improve learning and teaching?

What are your views on centralised, standardised testing and how results can be most effectively used?

Some Activities Relating To the Issue of Diagnostic Assessment

Key element




Some examples and suggestions

The nature of diagnostic assessment It should be systematically built in to the curriculum
With a teacher of another subject or another class, discuss the ways in which diagnostic assessment is embedded in your teaching.  How do different approaches respond to the evidence generated by diagnostic assessment?
Formal approaches Many proprietary tests exist to assess skills
Research the kinds of tests available.  Internet searches can help here and Learning Support teachers may have knowledge of certain tests.  Educational psychologists may have information on tests and may be able to comment on their reliability.
Informal approaches This type of assessment must also be systematic and follow the principles outlined above
Consider the sorts of diagnostic assessments which you make use of in the classroom.  Match these against the principles outlined in the section of this document, “The nature of diagnostic assessment”.  To what extent does your assessment match with these principles?
Ways in which diagnostic assessment can be used Data may be used to help pupils identify targets
Consider the extent to which you involve pupils in identifying targets.  Can you structure things so that it is the pupil who identifies the target - eg by offering the pupil a list of possible targets and having him/her identify the one(s) considered most appropriate?  Does your documentation allow pupils to keep a record of such targets and record progress?

Selected References

Further Reading

Education 5–14: Diagnostic Procedures (revised edition 1995)
This booklet, published by SCRE (the Scottish Council for Research in Education), focuses on more informal, coursework-based assessment.

It is available online at www.scre.ac.uk/pdf/taking/key.pdf

It includes references to subject-specific documents in the series, “Taking a Closer Look”


www.tki.org.nz/r/assessment/index_e.php  discusses a structured online approach to assessment.

It should be noted that the approaches dealt with here are very much part of centralised development of the assessment system.

Covers the role of assessment in key skills, from initial assessment to writing assignments, building portfolios, assessment of portfolio evidence, moderation and preparation for the external tests.

Gives RE resources which include diagnostic assessments (coursework-based) in this subject.

It is likely that more subject-specific assessment resources will become available online


Last updated 20/08/2010
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