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Approaches to assessment in primary science

Key question for teachers: How can formative assessment lead to reliable, valid and manageable summative assessment for the whole school?


This MESHGuide builds on the findings from the Teacher Assessment in Primary Science(TAPS) project. The focus of the TAPS project (September 2013 to July 2016) has been the development of a solution to teacher assessment in science to meet the requirements of the revised national curriculum in England and to define ‘best practice’ across the UK and internationally.


In June 2013 we issued an invitation to Bath Spa University (UK) partnership primary schools in the South West to apply to become one of the development and piloting cluster of 12 project schools.  50 schools applied, from which we selected 12 against a set of criteria agreed with our external adviser, Anne Goldsworthy.  A further seven schools were invited to join a reserve list, with the remainder invited to be associate members of the project, with access to all project materials as they are developed and the opportunity to contribute to the shaping of the optimum assessment solution.


The project aims to produce and disseminate a tested ICT-based teacher assessment package, with a bank of benchmarking examples of children’s attainment across the primary science curriculum and age-range, together with a web-based CPD unit and programme of further support.

During 2019-2021 there will be a large scale evaluation of the TAPS approach funded by the Education Endowment Fund, involving 3,500 pupils across 140 schools. Focus4TAPS is a CPD programme designed to support teachers to improve their teaching and assessment of science in primary schools.


Davies, D., Collier, C., Earle, S., Howe, A., and McMahon, K. (2014) Approaches to Science Assessment in English Primary Schools: Interim findings from the Teacher Assessment in Primary Science (TAPS) project . Accessed 11th Feb 2019.
Earle, S. (2014) Formative and summative assessment of science in English primary schools: evidence from the Primary Science Quality Mark, Research in Science and Technological Education, 32(2): 216-228.
Harlen, W. (2008) Science as a key component of the primary curriculum: a rationale with policy implications. Perspectives on Education 1 (Primary Science), pp4-18. Accessed 11th Feb 2019.
Harlen, W. (2012) Developing policy, principles and practice in primary school science assessment: report from a working group Available at: Accessed 16 April 2015.
Harlen, W. (2013) Assessment & Inquiry-Based Science Education: Issues in Policy and Practice, Trieste: Global Network of Science Academies (IAP) Science Education Programme (SEP).
Hattie, J. (2008) Visible Learning: a Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.
Hodgson, C. (2010) Assessment for learning in primary science: Practices and benefits. Available at: Accessed 16 April 2015.
Nuffield Foundation (2012) Developing Policy, Principles and Practice in Primary School Science Assessment, London:Nuffield Foundation.
Wiliam, D. (2011) What assessment can — and cannot — do. Available at: [accessed 16.5.14]

Summative assessment

Assessment of learning that summarises attainment or performance at a particular moment, usually by comparison or measurement (by assigning a grade or level) against a standard or benchmark. Often described by teachers as ‘end of unit’ or ‘end of year’; or assessment which fulfils a summarising purpose, e.g. to be passed onto the next teacher or put into the school tracking software.

Formative assessment

Often called ‘Assessment for learning’ and involving a range of techniques and strategies typically used by teachers in the classroom day-to-day to gauge how well a learner is progressing, to identify any misconceptions or difficulties the learner is having (also known as diagnostic assessment) and to identify what to teach next (‘next steps’). It aims to promote better learning and improve the effectiveness of teaching. Usually it uses processes such as self-assessment, peer-assessment, feedback, moderation and dialogue between teachers and learners. NB The same assessment activity might be described as ‘summative’ and/or ‘formative’ assessment depending on the intentions and context.


In the context of assessment, an assessment tool which consistently and accurately measures learning across a range of contexts is said to be reliable. Reliable assessment tools (such as exams) would be repeatable across time (year to year) and space (school to school). No assessment tool is entirely reliable.


The classic way of defining the validity of an assessment tool is the extent to which it measures what it was designed to measure. For example, a test of science knowledge should not depend on reading skill. However validity is not a fixed property of an assessment tool. It can be seen as an appraisal of the quality of the interpretations and decisions that are made on the basis assessment – valid assessments can be strongly justified by reference to evidence of learning.


In the context of primary science, manageable assessment can be understood as that which can be conducted by classroom teachers within the constraints and available support.

Broad principles

The broad principles of assessment are transferable across the subjects taught in primary school –key elements such as formative assessment and feedback are likely to have an impact on learning in many contexts (Hattie 2008).

Working scientifically

Challenges that are particular to science include the assessment of processes and skills that, when performed together, can lead to a child ‘working scientifically’. The complexity of this concept (for example there isn’t a single way or format to follow to achieve ‘working scientifically’) means that valid assessment is multifaceted.

Common sense, misconceptions and barriers to learning

A second challenge is the interaction between ‘common sense scientific ideas and more recognised scientific concepts and theories. Research has shown (Driver et al 1985, Science Process and Concept Exploration project) that children can temporarily acquire scientifically accepted ideas only later to discard them for their common sense explanations (alternative ideas or misconceptions): “There is a considerable body of research evidence that shows that, since children’s own ideas are often in conflict with scientific ones, if taken into the secondary school, these can inhibit effective learning. The conflict between children’s own ideas and ones that they are taught in secondary education leads many to find science too hard, too confusing and too remote from their real experience”. (Harlen, 2008)

Assessment, monitoring and reporting

The Teacher Assessment in Primary Science (TAPS) project (Earle et al, 2017) explores the ways in which pupils, teachers and senior colleagues can work together to achieve a valid, reliable and manageable approach to assessment in primary science which is consistent with evidence-based research in this field, implements Nuffield (Harlen, 2012) recommendations and meets the requirements of the revised National Curriculum for England including the requirement to report on attainment at the end of key stages. The TAPS project report includes recommendations for pedagogic interventions that involve pupils, teachers, school managers and leaders at four levels:

  • 1. Ongoing formative assessment –
    • (a) Pupils’ roles eg self and peer assessment
    • (b) Teachers’ roles eg eliciting children’s ideas, adapting lessons to suit needs, feedback
  • 2. Monitoring of pupil progress eg basing judgements on a range of types of activity, taking part in moderation discussions
  • 3. Reporting to the school community eg summaries of what pupils can do for parents and colleagues
  • 4. Reporting of school performance (i.e. summative assessment informed by formative processes)

The ‘Pupil layer’ and the ‘Teacher layer’ at the base of the ‘assessment pyramid’ encapsulate the principles of Assessment for Learning; schools should begin by focusing on these layers since this is not only the foundation of the whole system, it is also where changes will have the most impact on pupil progress in Primary Science. The report concludes that schools should strive for:

  • A strong emphasis upon formative assessment
  • A concern to involve children as much as possible
  • A separation between the assessment of procedural and conceptual components of scientific attainment,
  • A rigorous approach to evidencing teacher
  • Judgements
  • A focus upon moderation of teacher judgements
For case studies of how schools and teachers have implemented the 'TAPS' approach, please see the Primary Science Teaching Trust TAPS curriculum materials:

Approaches to assessment

Full guidance and resources to support classroom teachers and schools can be found at

Strength of evidence

The references cited here are to major studies carried out over a number of years. The TAPs research sample is 12 schools plus 38 commenting on the research from the 12. The schools are all located in the west of England. We would be interested in knowing if teachings find the findings and advice useful in their own context. Please email comments to


Transferability - 3/4

The editors give this Guide a 3/4 rating.

Translational Research- levels used for MESHGuides

With thanks to Professor James O’Meara President International Council on Education for Teaching (

—T1 - Local findings that have not been formally tested outside the area in which the research was undertaken.

—T2 - Local findings that editors consider will easily translate to  comparable settings in the same/similar region(s)

—T3  Local findings that translate to  a comparable setting in another international region

—T4  Local findings that translate to  a comparable settings (3 or more) in one or more international  regions

Source : May 9th 2013 Minutes MESH Chief Ed. Group.

UK authors may find it useful to know that the rating system is similar to that used in the 2008 university research assessment exercise with level three and four clearly demonstrating international   relevance.



Editors' comments

While the example here is based on the English education system, the editors consider the definitions and principles outlined here are likely to apply in many different contexts. Feedback on the materials on the TAPS website is welcome. Email

Areas for further research

There is a good deal now known about the importance of formative assessment and the ways in which teachers can incorporate this into their science teaching. There is work to be done to find the best ways develop teacher’s professional expertise in using the evidence from such assessment to impact on further learning. We welcome examples of approaches to formative feedback including video and details of interventions which have enabled learners to overcome barriers to learning they were experiencing. Email

Online community

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