Assessing History

Please note: this guide was written before the 2014 National Curriculum and some of the advice may no longer be relevant.
For more up-to-date guidance see:

How can teachers assess history well? More importantly, how can they plan for assessment that will help children to move on in their learning?

Learning objectives

All the lessons on this website identify specific historical learning objectives, as well as social or cross-curricular objectives. History is a language-based subject, so it is the perfect vehicle for language development. Most of the Nuffield lessons include specific literacy objectives and outcomes, and many of them have been taught in the literacy hour (e.g. Boudicca; the Battle of Trafalgar). However, we always explicitly address history objectives too.

Formative assessment

Formative assessment is a crucial element in children's learning journey. It is intrinsic to Assessment for Learning (AfL) - the improving of learning through assessment.

To use the principles of AfL in your history teaching:

Set history learning goals for the children. Discuss these goals with the children so they understand what they are aiming for. Take the learning goals from the knowledge, skills and understanding laid out in the National Curriculum history guidance.

Encourage all children to believe that they can learn. Assessment has a huge influence on children's motivation and self-esteem. Motivate them with open-ended, interesting historical questions and scaffold their learning to help them succeed.

Here are lessons and exemplars are based on good questions and scaffolding; e.g. Grace Darling KS1 Castles Visit to Petworth House

Give frequent feedback to children about how they are doing and how they can improve.

Use Questioning both to assess and to advance children's learning.

Actively involve all children in their own learning through, for instance, discussion and debate with peers and teacher; assessing, reviewing and reflecting on their own performance. See for instance Sumerian mystery.

Time spent on these activities is far more valuable than using it to teach more facts.

Use on-going informal assessment (based on observation; discussion; questioning; written work) to adjust your teaching and progress the children's learning.

Many of the lessons on this site include evaluations by teachers of their lessons, and reflections on how they will adjust their future teaching.

Notice that speaking and listening are central to formative assessment.

The AfL initiative is central to the Government's Primary Strategy, and is based on the extensive research of Paul Black, Dylan Wiliam and their colleagues at King's College, London.

Summative assessment and reporting progress

Summative assessment in history should only be carried out at the end of a year or key stage. You do not need to assess using the National Curriculum level descriptions for history. Indeed, there is no statutory obligation to level children's work in history at all.

What teachers must do is report progress in history to parents each year. What is the best way to do this? The level descriptions follow a model of progression in history based on the idea of the spiral curriculum, where skills and concepts are revisited continually, at ever more sophisticated levels.

The Nuffield Primary History team's view is that, while there is much good in this assessment model, it lacks an overall focus. For us, the focus would be the development by children of a sense of period - a deep knowledge of people within the era in which they lived - grounded in evidence, enquiry and imagination.

Uses of level descriptions

The level descriptions for history do provide a useful guide and checklist when assessing progress over a year or key stage. Some schools make a photocopy of the level descriptions for each child and, over the key stage, teachers highlight the statements that best fit each child's attainment. At the end of the key stage, they place each child at the level that has the most highlighted descriptors - in other words, the level that is a 'best fit' for that child.

The level descriptions were emphatically not designed for formative, day-to-day assessment. Nor should each level be dismembered into separate bits.

The official position was stated a decade ago by Bennett and Steele:

"Level descriptions were neither designed as teaching and learning objectives nor as setting out what has to be assessed on a day-to-day basis.

"Level descriptions have been designed to provide a 'best fit' description. It is not intended that they should be broken down into their constituent parts. In history, the various components of the level description are closely related, and the distinction between the levels lies in the whole rather than the parts. In making a judgement, therefore, teachers will be concerned to identify a range of levels and then to consider which one best fits as a description of a pupil's performance (Bennett and Steele, 1995, p.7)

For example

At the end of the local study focused on Magdalen Road, we carried out a detailed summative analysis of the children's historical learning. Click here to read our discussion and assessment of the children's learning. We have not levelled it for two reasons. Teachers are not required to level work in history. An eight-hour unit does not in itself provide enough evidence for levelling. See Summative assessment: Magdalen Road

We also have an exemplar of the summative assessment of children questioning artefacts. See assessment and questioning and Assessment exemplar: question artefacts (pots)

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