Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching

The nature of assessment: Theories that underpin assessment

The question of whether there is a theory that underpins assessment is sometimes asked and debated without saying what is meant by theory and its relationship to assessment, so some clarification is needed. Theory and assessment have two possible relationships.

In the first relationship, a theory about assessment examines and seeks to explain its nature and processes or the social or political functions it performs. The critical social constructionist perspective (see page 20) offers one possible theory about assessment.

In the second relationship, a theory of or, more precisely, for assessment suggests the possible existence of a systematic set of ideas that informs what information is collected, how to collect it and how to use it in forming understandings and recommendations. At its best, the theory would be underpinned by understandings of human experience and action, offer explanation of the situation being assessed and how to respond, and be supported by compatible models and tools for conducting the assessment.

The Quality Assurance Agency subject benchmarks for the social work degree suggest that this is precisely the kind of theory that students should be learning. For example, the benchmarks expect students to understand theories on the causes of need and about models and methods of assessment (QAA, 2000, 3.1.4/5).

The use of ‘theories’ in the plural in the preceding sentence gives away a particular complication that faces educators, students and practitioners. As Crisp and colleagues report in their 2003 review, there is no single theory for assessment. This conclusion is supported by the Salford CSWR study of higher education institutions teaching social work programmes (Crisp et al, 2003, p v; Shardlow et al, 2005, p 47). The Salford study found that students are not being prepared for a single paradigm or approach to assessment and suggests that different approaches are shaped by the teacher’s own theoretical and value stance and mediated by the level of the student’s own knowledge, skill, values and theoretical position.

There is no lack of underpinning theoretical perspectives on offer, although they are more likely to be found in textbooks than in the frameworks examined by Crisp and colleagues. Only the children’s framework discusses the need to underpin practice with theory but does not identify specific theories (Crisp et al, 2005, p 47).

The textbooks offered a variety of different theoretical underpinnings to assessment including:

The reviewers suggest that the plurality of theories for assessment may account for the diverse advice given to readers on the information they should collect in assessments (Crisp et al, 2005, p 19).

Questions for educators

  • Which underpinning theories appear in assessment teaching?
  • What part do the theoretical and value stance and experience of the teacher and students play in the choice of theory in teaching and learning about assessment?
  • Are there methods for subjecting these choices (above) to independent examination and for evaluating theories from the range on offer?

Next: The different timeframes of assessment