ALAN’S BLOG The challenges of assessment: When understanding and evaluation are out of kilter – Alan Brine

November 22, 2016
Alan's Blog, Think Pieces,


A term into the new GCSEs and folk are finding their way. A key issue is assessment particularly in the light of the beyond levels culture.


Early indications are that the legacy of the ‘level’ confusion coupled with the focus of GCSE on the skill of evaluation (AO2) threaten to undermine assessment common-sense.


One of the worst mistakes of the old 8-level scale was building a ladder of skills with the implication that some skills represent a higher level than others. This was, of course, a mistake – evaluating simple ideas represents a lower level of attainment than understanding more complex challenging ideas.


Crucially – there needs to be a careful synergy between the two competences. Broadly, although it is not a rigid formula, it is essential that students understand what they are learning before attempting to evaluate the material.


One of the major pitfalls of much assessment practice is the tendency to ask students to deploy the skills of evaluation BEFORE they have understood the ideas they are studying under the illusion that evaluating is a higher level. Once you couple this with confusion about the purpose and nature of the subject you have a recipe for continuing assessment muddle. And early evidence is that the question setting by exam boards is falling into this trap.


If students find they are being asked to evaluate before they develop a reasonable level of understanding the consequences are familiar. Writing lacks independence, fluency and coherence. The learning reverts to ‘teaching to test’ and assessment starts to look for ‘points made’ in order to get the marks, rather than assessing the real quality of understanding and argument.


Initial indications seem to be that this dilemma will become more problematic with the shift towards a more ‘theological’ approach in RE. And the issue can also be seen at Key Stage 3 with teachers moving towards GCSE-style assessment practice.


Brave teachers have been posting examples of tasks. Two recent examples illustrate the problem. In both cases the teachers are clearly trying very hard to develop more challenging tasks – and in neither case should they be criticised for their efforts.


In both of these cases do we face the problem that the understanding and evaluation demands of the tasks are out of kilter?



Year 7 students are asked: “To what extent do you agree with God’s decision to test Abraham?”

Apart from the obvious problem that the task seems to presume belief in God, there are other issues about asking Year 7 students to evaluate the statement.

  1. It is not clear what kind of question it is. Is it the kind of question you ask when studying fiction; the equivalent to asking whether Hamlet should have killed Polonius? OR is it more like a historical question; the equivalent of asked whether the UK should have declared war on Germany in 1939? Or is it a theological question; the equivalent of asking why Christians believe Jesus is the Son of God? Unless students are clear which kind of question this is, it is very difficult for them to make real progress.


  1. Assuming it is intended as a theological question, it requires a very high level of biblical and theological understanding before any evaluation will make sense. The only way the students could really handle the evaluation would be if they could explain different theological interpretations of the story and then offer a balanced assessment of those interpretations in the light of a wider understanding of key threads in Christian (or Jewish) theology. Phew!! Without that understanding all the students can do is offer a highly subjective personal response to the story which is in practice very difficult to assess.


What we have is an evaluation task which demands complex levels of understanding beyond the students’ capacity. Better to ask the students a challenging ‘understanding’ task to find out why this story is important within the Christian tradition.



Year 10 students are asked: “The crucifixion is more important to Christians than the resurrection”. Evaluate this statement.

  1. Again, we have the problem about what kind of question this is. Superficially it looks like an empirical question. Find out, as a matter of fact, what percentage of Christians do or do not think crucifixion is more important than resurrection and then analyse the results of your research ….. not presumably what is required.


  1. Assuming the question is, in reality, a theological one we are again faced with huge challenge in terms of understanding before we even come to evaluation. In order to develop an independent, fluent response to the task students would need to analyse different theological interpretations of the two main concepts. They would need to be able to explain those differences before even beginning to develop any serious evaluation of the statement.


In practice, what most students will do is construct ‘learned’ arguments trying to incorporate the required number of points to ’get the marks’. Much better to ask the students to explain different Christian views rather than trying to evaluate, which is a step too far.