The role of assessment in teacher education

Kari Smith and Ann MacPhail

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Setting the scene

Teacher education involves assessment of who shall be certified as teachers. Views on who is an effective teacher inherently impact the discussion of how to assess achievement of the required knowledge and skills, these days commonly expressed by ‘standards’. However, qualifying teachers is only one function of assessment in teacher education, and even if it is the most obvious one, we would claim that preparing future teachers to become assessors for, and of, student learning is at least an equally important function of assessment in teacher education (Smith, 2016).

The main goal with this short text is to briefly present the multiple and complex functions of assessment in teacher education. Each function might need a text in itself, and therefore the reader is strongly recommended to look at the abstracts suggested for further reading. The functions to be discussed here are, (i) ensuring student teacher graduates are professionally competent (gate-keeping), (ii) formative assessment affecting student teachers’ learning and motivation, and (iii) student teachers’ learning to become formative and summative assessors of their pupils’ learning.

The relevance/consequences for teacher educators

The complexity of the multiple functions of assessment in teacher education puts demands on teacher educators they might not feel they are sufficiently prepared for, and assessment has certainly not been given sufficient attention in teacher education (Smith, 2011).

Ensuring student teacher graduates are professionally competent (gate-keeping)

Smith (2016) claims that

Teacher education prepares for a profession, and graduates from teacher education have to be qualified to act as professionals, having the knowledge, skills and competence to practice the profession. A major function of assessment in teacher education is to serve as gatekeeper and quality measure to ensure that graduates are competent to take on the huge responsibility of educating future teachers. The gatekeeping function is practiced in different ways, and today many national contexts have developed standards for teachers

(Smith, 2016, p.411)

The danger is that standards can be used as checklists of competences, for policy purposes, but are very difficult to measure for teacher educators or others responsible for the summative assessment at the end of teacher education. Another challenge is that teaching is highly contextualized, and what might be appropriate in one context might turn out to be inappropriate in other contexts. As much as we agree that there is a strong need for the gatekeeping function of assessment in teacher education, we are not convinced that narrow standards in the form of checklists are the best solution. For example, a competence portfolio with compulsory, as well as self-chosen, entries might be a more meaningful, relevant and worthwhile way in which to capture a student teacher’s collective capabilities as a future teacher than having a teacher educator ticking off items on a list during a ‘test’ lesson taught by the student teacher.

Formative assessment affecting student teachers’ learning

A central aim of assessment is that it will have a positive effect on learning, and by practicing formative assessment, even more so in teacher education. Brookhart defines formative assessment as, “It is just-in-time, just-for-me information delivered when and where it can do the most good” (Brookhart, 2008, 1). This is not only appropriate for school children, but for all learners everywhere. It also suggests that there is no fixed recipe of how to practice formative assessment, and is closely related to the assessor’s assessment literacy defined by Webb as;

The knowledge of the means for assessing what students know and can do, the interpretation of the results from these assessments, and applications of the assessment results to improve student learning and program effectiveness

(Webb, 2002:1)

A question we pose is if teacher educators are assessment literate. Associated with this is the extent to which they have experienced any formal education in assessment, or do they rely on intuition and previous experiences (effective or ineffective) of assessment?

Teaching assessment to student teachers

The ways student teachers are exposed to assessment becomes inherent in their teacher education. Implicitly, they learn about assessment from how their own learning is being assessed in teacher education, in other words, the teacher educators’ modelling of formative as well as summative assessment. The importance of effective modelling in teacher education is today well documented (Lunenberg, Korthagen & Swennen, 2007). The way oral and written feedback is given, the extent to which grades are explained and, not least, the forms of assessment they experience during teacher education is central in forming future teachers’ dispositions to, and practices, of assessment (Smith, 2016).

In addition to effective modelling of sound assessment is, a more explicit approach to teaching assessment is through formal courses on assessment in the teacher education curriculum in which the supporting learning and motivational theories are discussed in relation to assessment theories and practice. The question is if teacher education institutions have faculty with sufficient competence to teach such courses, and if ‘assessment for learning’ and ‘assessment as learning’ (Hayward, 2015), and not only ‘assessment of learning’ (measurement), are all part of the teacher education curriculum.


The functions of assessment in teacher education are multiple and complex. The main question to ask in light of the above is if there is sufficient knowledge about, and competence in, effectively advocating for and delivering appropriate assessment practices among teacher educators. Meaningful and coherent teacher education programmes / school programmes in any subject area reflect an alignment among learning goals, assessments that determine if student teachers / pupils reach those goals, and the instructional practices that provide student teachers / pupils the opportunity to achieve success (Cohen, 1987). It is essential that teacher educators not only have the skillset to enact instructional alignment through their own delivery but also the capacity to impart such a central and essential pedagogy to student teachers.


Brookhart, S. M. (2008). How to give effective feedback to your students. Alexandria, Va: Association.

Cohen, S.A., (1987). Instructional alignment: Searching for a magic bullet, Educational Researcher, 16(8), 16-20.

Hayward, L. (2015). Assessment is learning: the preposition vanishes, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22 (1), 27-43.

Lunenberg. M., Korthagen, F., & Swennen, A. (2007). The teacher educator as a role model, Teaching and Teacher Education, 23, (5), 586-601.

Smith, K. (2011). Professional development of teachers – A prerequisite for AfL to be successfully implemented in the classroom, Studies in Educational Evaluation, 37, 55–61.

Smith, K. (2016). Functions of Assessment in Teacher Education. In M.L. Hamilton and J.J Loughran (Eds.) The International handbook of teacher education, Volume II, Chapter 27 (pp.405-428). Dordrecht: Springer.

Webb, N.L. (2002) Assessment literacy in a standard-based urban education setting. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Key words Functions of assessment, Role of teacher educators as assessors, Gatekeeping, Supporting learning, Teaching about instructional alignment

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