Maximising the impact of reading assessments through coding

In the UK, we are familiar with the use of national assessments to measure the progress pupils have made over the course of their education, or phases of their education, but what can sometimes be overlooked are the formative benefits of apparently summative assessments. Using results formatively to inform teaching practice is one way of maximising the impact of reading assessment in our classrooms.  

Research suggests that teachers value assessment to inform learning goals and teaching strategies, but do not always make the most of the available data they receive from summative assessments (Hopster-den Otter, et al., 2017; Kirkup, 2006) and often time constraints make it difficult to spend time analysing and interpreting data meaningfully. Additionally, the data provided by some summative assessments may not offer enough insight into pupils’ performance; an attainment grade alone does not reflect the nuances of a pupil’s relative strengths or weaknesses in different areas of the curriculum tested by a single, overarching assessment, for example.


Using coding with scoring
One way assessments can offer more formative value is for traditional scoring to be combined with diagnostic coding. Coding frames, developed in conjunction with an assessment, can be used by markers to categorise pupil responses against several criteria. Coding gathers information about pupils’ errors and misconceptions, and how regularly these occur. It identifies correct and frequently occurring incorrect answers for each question and other relevant features of performance, like answer development and use of evidence. Assessment developers can decide what to code for by anticipating specific errors and misinterpretations. They can later group common features in pupils’ answers after items have been trialled by a sample of pupils.

Analysing coding helps determine overall item facility, discrimination by ability, response omission rate and rates of predetermined errors or misinterpretations. A diagnostic guide can then be developed, pairing these statistics with explanations, to help teachers interpret data meaningfully and reliably, and use it to improve learning outcomes for pupils. NFER assessments for example, include diagnostic guides which discuss the common errors made by different groups of pupils, offering a greater level of insight into where pupils may be going wrong, which can inform future teaching.


Identifying areas for further teaching
Whilst there are limitations to diagnostic coding, such as when patterns in performance only become apparent during the marking process and are not captured by the coding frame, it can be a powerful and efficient means of identifying areas in which all or some pupils will benefit from further teaching. Although sophisticated diagnostic coding frames are time-consuming to prepare, one less arduous method of coding can simply be to make a note of common errors or misconceptions made by pupils when marking an assessment. If these observations can be recorded in such a way as to make it possible to target individual pupils or particular groups of pupils who need support in a given area so much the better, though it may also be the case that a general misunderstanding or weakness can be identified, so that further whole class teaching can address this most efficiently.

NFER’s Assessment Hub includes studies of pupils’ performance in the individual questions on previous years’ National Curriculum tests in Reading and Mathematics. It highlights key patterns of strength and weakness, which could also inform planning at both Key Stage 2 and early Key Stage 3.


Observing pupil performance
Reading assessments themselves are sometimes criticised for not covering all areas of the curriculum or of a text but they can still be extremely useful in highlighting weaknesses and misunderstandings related to reading comprehension and test-taking skills. There are however, other means of assessing pupils formatively through an enhanced range of different classroom activities. ‘Hot seating’ or role-play can be used to let pupils explore the characters and how they interact with each other, and develop empathy with them. Likewise, classroom debates, and discussions, allow pupils to explore abstract aspects of the narrative and develop skills in identifying textual evidence. Observing pupils’ performances in these activities can also help to understand where pupils would benefit from further support.

In the current education climate, it is important that we make our assessments work for us in the most efficient way. Formalised assessments can produce data much more valuable to teachers than a simple score if used diagnostically. Keeping a keen eye on pupils when they are immersed in more interactive activities can also help shape future learning opportunities for increased impact.


For more on the effective use of assessment, you can find a range of free guidance and resources on the NFER Assessment Hub. You can also sign up to our monthly assessment newsletter for exclusive assessment-related content delivered direct to your inbox.

For more information on NFER’s popular range of termly standardised assessments for key stage 1 and 2, visit