The Purpose of Assessment in Core PE

By Lee Sullivan


There can be no doubt that assessment has been an area of contention and challenge for physical educators for some time. The need for standardisation, accountability, and evidence has driven many assessment models that are not fit for purpose.

Much of my learning comes from reflecting on my own mistakes, others challenging my thinking, seeing better practice and reading and listening to experts that know more about a particular topic than I do.

For years I assessed in the same way I was assessed at school and the same way I had seen others assess. I was doing what had always been done and the only way I knew. When I first became a PE teacher and well into my first few years as Head of Department, at the end of every unit of work I would hold an assessment lesson. This would inform my summative grades and essentially I would hold some form of conditioned/full context version of the activity, walk around the class with my clip board and pen and mark off whether students could effectively replicate a skill or movement. I would then input that summative grade, send it off to parents and inform students. The students never had an opportunity to act on any of the assessment information in that scheme of work and would not likely return to that activity for another year. The only purpose of that form of assessment was to inform students, SLT and parents whether a child was any good at that activity or not. Furthermore, the assessment focused only on practical ability that focused on GCSE PE outcomes or one of an elite performer.

This blog seeks to explore the purpose of assessment in Core PE.

What do we mean by Assessment?

The AIESEP Position Statement on Physical Education Assessment describes assessment as, ‘a process by which information on student learning is obtained, interpreted and communicated, relative to one or more predefined learning outcomes (AIESEP, 2020). Myatt (2018) offers a sound definition of assessment as, ‘the process of gaining insight into what our pupils know, understand and can do as a result of what we have taught them’.

Both of these definitions focus on the teacher understanding if learning has occurred. However, it could be argued that in PE we have become fixated on using assessment only to communicate to senior leaders and parents how well (or not) someone has done in an activity, not because we value the process, but because we have to. I think assessment can go further than these definitions to include the use of the gathered information to inform future teaching, provide student ownership and opportunities for reflection and should not be considered as a final destination, but instead as a key part of the learning journey.

It is also vital that we remind ourselves at this point what we are aiming to achieve in Core PE. I explored this in a recent blog ‘The Problem with GCSE PE’. We do not have the same aims as GCSE PE in Core PE. We should use our assessment in Core PE to assess against our Core PE curriculum intent. Consider what knowledge and skills we hope they leave us with and how do we know we have achieved it?

What Messages Are We Sending?

At the start of this academic year, I had a Year 7 student come up to me to inform me that he was unable to run. I asked him if he had an injury to which he replied he had not. I asked him why he was unable to run and his reply was an instant reminder as to the negative impact that assessment can have on ones self-identity in PE. He said that in Year 6 he got a “rubbish grade in athletics”. He thought that he couldn’t run because of the message his assessment had given him. I wondered what other activities this message might have transferred to. Might he not want to have a kick around at break for fear of having to run for the ball, or try to avoid PE because of the humiliation attached to the poor grade he would likely receive? I reminded him that of course he can run! He doesn’t need to win a race or run the furthest, but he can absolutely run and find enjoyment in it. Whether it be running or running in another activity, he can find meaning through movement.  

Assessment in schools recently went through its biggest change for some time, as we transitioned into life without levels. Previously, students were given a level, based on their ability to perform a skill. These levels often came with sub-levels and were com­plicated for teachers to understand, let alone students.

However, with levels now gone, it seems that they have been replaced by different wording with a similar negative impact. Levels in disguise. It is not uncommon for schools to report home using a GCSE 1-9 grade or be asked to input data against working below, working at or working above grades that are often set against performance in English and Maths. How is any of this relevant to PE? It certainly doesn’t meet our objective to build positive relationships with PE, physical activity and sport. Much like skill-drill PE delivery, is this doing more harm than good?

The way in which we share assessment information is also something to reflect upon. I have witnessed PE departments choose to publicise students’ results in different forms. Some chose to put assessment grades achieved in a student planner, while others communi­cate attainment out to the class in a register-style approach. More recently, I have even seen assessment grades transferred to a 100-metre sprint race analogy-style notice board. The students achieving the highest grades have their pictures pinned closer to the finish line and those with lower attainment further back. Once again I ask, what message is this sending to those that can and those that, according to the performance and practical focused assessment, cannot?

The wording around how we communicate progress is very important and the method in which we use to communicate that information is equally as important.

What is the Purpose of Assessment?

Often when we think about an assessment, we think of a test. I think it’s time to reframe what that means in PE as we consider what we are hoping to gain from any form of assessment in PE.

Firstly, the teachers should use their observations to reflect on whether learning has occurred. Do they know what I need them to know? Can they show what I want them to show? If they can then great, we can increase the level of challenge. If not, then we may need to revisit prior learning or provide more time for practice. Either way, this information should enable and inform future lesson planning. We must also acknowledge the vital part that students themselves must take in their learning journey. Students should reflect on their own progress. What can they do now that they couldn’t before? More importantly. What do they need to do/know to take their learning further? Finally, it is important to share learning progress with our senior leaders, parents and other key stake holders. I am often saddened to see the number of schools who will provide summaries of learning progress in every subject but PE. What does this say to the educational value that PE holds in that school and the importance of PE to the children’s development?

We must reflect on what it is we are trying to achieve with our curriculum. We are a mass education system and not an elite education system. A huge majority of our students will not go on to play sport at an elite level, and those that do, won’t do so because of our practical focused and performance obsessed assessment. We must ensure learning is occurring, adapt future teaching, bring students in on their learning journey and communicate learning progress. We must not provide messages that tell students they are not good at something because they are judged against criteria set out to create professionals. We must build positive relationships that nurture intrinsic motivation so that children engage in and remain in physical activity.

Formative vs Summative

Assessment is often referred to in two different forms: summative and formative. In her keynote speech for Making Shift Happen (2018), Daisy Christodoulou provided this clear differentiation for the two forms of assessment, “formative assessment is the journey and summative assessment is the destination.”

Despite the clear differences in summative and formative assessment, assessment guru Wiliam argues, in The Research Ed Guide to Assessment, that summative and formative assessment should not be separated as different forms of assessment, as assessment can be used both summatively and formatively. This point is further supported by Christodoulou (2016) in her suggestion of combining both summative and formative assessment in a ‘descriptor-based assessment’. By using descriptors of performance, teachers can assess student performance throughout the entire scheme of work, and use these observations to provide a summative grade once completed.

In the Concept Curriculum we recommend this approach of using formative to inform summative. Do away with those harmful assessment lessons and instead use the information you gather each and every lesson to provide you with a bigger view of a student’s progress. At the risk of losing many readers, I often use an analogy linked to my beloved and enraging Tottenham Hotspur Football Team. If I was to observe one of our key players, Harry Kane, in any one match he can have zero shots on goal and few touches in the opposition’s box. If I were to assess him in that one game, he might receive a low mark. However, if I observed him across an entire season I could see just how good he is. I can see his technical ability, how he moves under pressure, decision making, tactical awareness, etc. I might even observe the times he leads his team, communicates effectively, demonstrates resilience and determination and unfortunately as a Spurs player his ability to embrace and learn from failure.

In short, the information we can gain from an entire scheme of work is far greater than the information we can gather in one assessment lesson. Thus the benefits of using ongoing formative assessment to inform summative judgements.

Going Beyond the Physical

It is not the purpose of PE to develop resilience or leadership skills, nor is it our responsibility to improve communication or intrapersonal skills. We are however, in a fantastic place to offer immersive experiences with character development learning opportunities. We can provide a safe place to learn about failure, to lead and be led, to aim to win and communicate to create.  All while being active for sustained periods of time, building positive relationships with PE, physical activity and sport and developing movement competence and confidence. “The development of fundamental movement skills can provide the foundation from which children move with increasing complexity, variety and versatility in a range of activity areas. Whilst developing these skills children are also able to build on social, affective and cognitive learning opportunities.” (Randall, V. 2022). This leads to the point that if we are going to explicitly bring character development into our curriculum, we should assess it.

Andrew Frapwell and the Association for Physical Education (AfPE) released A Practical Guide to Assessing Without levels (2015). This book presents the Head-Heart-Hands framework for organising content and criteria. The content represents the ‘key skills’ (Hands), ‘essential knowledge and concepts’ (Head), and ‘vital behaviours’ (Heart) expected of all learners by the end of their respective Key Stages:

  • Physical, referring to the changes in the body, growth, movement, and environment perception (psychomotor domain).
  • Cognitive development addresses the mental processes including mem­ory, language, and problem solving (cognitive domain).
  • Social/emotional development, pertaining to how children handle rela­tionships and their own emotions (affective domain).

Encouragingly, many schools have adopted this framework, or the Matt Bowler ‘Me in PE’ approach. Holistic assessment should focus on development, not performance, through more than the physical domain, therefore encouraging students to learn from mistakes and motivating them to engage. This encourages a positive and enriching environment in which all students can flourish through physical activity, thus nurturing physical literacy. I too often see PE departments make bold claims about their curriculum intent and then assess only against the physical domain. Whilst I agree, learning through the physical domain is our bread and butter as PE teachers, we have the opportunity to go further.


This blog aimed to explore the true purpose of assessment in core PE. Through my reading, research, experience and collaborations I believe that assessment should not be considered as the final destination in a unit of work, but as part of the learning journey throughout it. The information gained from formative assessment should be used to see if students know what we want them to know and can show what we had aimed for them to show. This information can be used to inform future teaching and provide opportunities for students to reflect on progress and understand what can be done to progress further. Formative can be used to inform summative. We must do better when considering how we communicate assessment information and assess students against what we had set out to achieve with our curriculum intent.

Looking for More

Assessment in PE

Wanting to explore assessment in PE further? Check out the bite size Assessment in PE course (free to PE Scholar members) which is intended to provide a clear rationale for thinking differently about assessment whilst also providing some initial ideas to help you improve the way you assess.


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