Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

The nature of assessment: Assessment processes

Crisp and colleagues found differences among and between textbooks and frameworks in the extent of information offered on the assessment process. The framework for children and families offered as much detail on the assessment process as many of the textbooks reviewed, and possibly more. By contrast, the framework for older people provided relatively little on process, taking readers to be skilled already in assessment (Crisp et al, 2005, p 56).

However, the reviewers comment that each framework includes some expectations about the assessor and the assessment, covering factors such as interview timeframes, expected information, content of the report and matters of consent, confidentiality and disclosure (Crisp et al, 2005, p 49). Some frameworks also offer structured recording instruments and supplements giving suggested tools. This applied, for example, to both the children and families framework and the framework for integrated care of drug users (Crisp et al, 2005, App 4). However, the authors of the children and families framework are at pains to point out that the aim is to offer a conceptual map for systematic analysis and recording rather than a practice manual (Crisp et al, 2005, p 164).

The national occupational standards (NOS) for social work do not set out detailed learning expectations on the assessment process. The same is true of the requirements of the pre-registration ‘assessed year in employment’ (AYE) for newly qualified social workers in Northern Ireland (NISCC, 2005a). The requirements for the degree and for AYE are defined by the six NOS key roles. The six roles are expressed in line with the NOS task of stating outcome standards but leaving detailed content for determination by educators, learners and employers (TOPSS UK Partnership, 2004). Hence the NOS opt for outlining a project management-like sequence in which assessment, goals and planned action are linked to planned outcomes and modified by regular reassessment of risk (Key role 1, unit 3).

Two views arise from the analysis by Crisp and colleagues of the treatment of process in the frameworks (Crisp et al, 2005, p 57).

When Crisp and colleagues turn to textbooks, they confirm a theme predictably familiar from other strands of their analysis. There was no common conceptualisation of the assessment task. The reviewers also note that the focus of the assessment process varies. Assessors are in some cases encouraged to use lists of questions, domains to be covered or assessment tools. In other cases the emphasis is on critical understanding of the process and assumptions that are made about service users and their needs.

Furthermore, the information to be collected shifts over time with the emergence of new or competing theories and philosophies: for instance, from the diagnostic, psychoanalytic approach to correlation of variables associated with offending; from a focus on problems and deficits to solutions and strengths; and from resource-led assessments to needs-led assessments with the advent of community care reforms in the early 1990s (Crisp et al, 2005, p 20). There are echoes here of earlier discussions and links to the idea that assessment is constructed professionally, culturally, organisationally, politically and economically.

Questions for educators

  • If you are using assessment frameworks in teaching the process of assessment, does your selection allow for the variation between the level and types of guidance offered?
  • If a form-based approach is included in teaching and learning, are both the pros and cons explored, including the risks of form-led assessment processes?
  • Is there scope for exploring the ways in which assessment processes change over time and the factors that influence those change?

Next: Evidence-based assessment