Delve Institute of Learning Research

Educational Research Topics and Digests

Assessment in Mathematics

In the researcher’s own words, “Assessing students’ learning is multi-faceted. The process of making sense of students’ mathematical thinking, through student explanations, strategies, and mathematical behaviors, is much more complex than might be anticipated and can often challenge teachers’ ways of thinking about mathematics and mathematics teaching and learning.”

Assessment in Mathematics Education

Suurtamm, C., Thompson, D. R., Kim, R. Y., Moreno, L. D., Sayac, N., Schukajlow, S., et al. (2016). Assessment in mathematics education: Large-scale assessment and classroom assessment. Cham: Springer.

This research book written by Suurtamm, C. et al. (2016) addresses the topic of external assessments built outside of the classroom. Classroom teachers have traditionally used their own assessments to track student progress. However, external assessments are increasingly being used to gauge student knowledge and inform instruction. As a result, external assessments can have a significant impact on the instructional practices of classroom teachers.


Three findings were significant regarding COVID-19, assessment complexity in math, and policy implications.

  1. The COVID-19 crisis and mathematics education: The pandemic has caused many challenges and opportunities for mathematics education, such as the use of digital technology, the role of mathematics in understanding global issues, and the need for new pedagogies.
  2. The assessment process and its complexity: Assessment is a key aspect of mathematics education that requires valid and reliable measures of mathematical competence, which involves cognitive, affective, and social dimensions.
  3. The policy implications of assessment data: Assessment data can inform educational policy and practice, but also raise ethical and political issues, such as the impact of high-stakes testing, the equity and fairness of assessment, and the role of stakeholders in decision-making.

Research Summary

  • Assessment is used for multiple purposes, including providing student grades, national accountability, system monitoring, resource allocation, student placement, intervention, teaching and learning improvement, and individual feedback.
  • The purpose of assessment is important, as claims made about student learning should be different depending on the goals and design of the assessment activity.
  • Large-scale assessment and classroom assessment serve different purposes and have different goals. Large-scale assessment informs systems, while classroom assessment supports teaching and learning.
  • Large-scale assessment is often used for system monitoring, program evaluation, and student placement. It can also be used for accountability purposes, such as graduation or grade promotion.
  • Teachers may be evaluated based on how well their students perform on large-scale assessments.

Assessment in Mathematics Education: Responding to issues regarding methodology, policy, and equity

Nortvedt, G.A., Buchholtz, N. Assessment in mathematics education: responding to issues regarding methodology, policy, and equity. ZDM Mathematics Education 50, 555–570 (2018).

Researchers Nortvedt and Buchholtz address math assessment issues including curriculum policy and equity.

  • Policy issues related to assessment: The reciprocal relationship between assessment outcomes and policy-making, and the potential consequences for mathematics education, such as narrowing the curriculum or teaching to the test.
  • Equity issues in assessment: The need for fair and culturally responsive assessments that can provide equal opportunities for all students to demonstrate their mathematical competence, especially for gender and migrant groups.

Summary of Policy Issues

The reciprocal relationship between assessment outcomes and policy-making means that assessment outcomes can influence policy-making, and policy-making can influence assessment outcomes.

For example, if assessment outcomes show that students are not performing well in mathematics, policy-makers may be more likely to implement policies that focus on improving mathematics education. These policies could include providing more funding for mathematics education, requiring teachers to take more mathematics courses, or changing the curriculum to focus more on the skills that are being tested.

On the other hand, policy-making can also influence assessment outcomes. For example, if policy-makers decide to change the curriculum to focus more on the skills that are being tested, this could lead to an increase in student performance on those skills. However, it could also lead to a narrowing of the curriculum, as teachers may focus on teaching only the skills that are being tested.

The potential consequences for mathematics education of the reciprocal relationship between assessment outcomes and policy-making include:

  • Narrowing of the curriculum: If assessment outcomes focus on a narrow range of skills, teachers may feel pressure to narrow the curriculum to focus on those skills. This could lead to students not having the opportunity to learn a broad range of mathematical concepts and skills.
  • Teaching to the test: If assessment outcomes are used to evaluate teachers or schools, teachers may feel pressure to “teach to the test.” This means that they may focus on teaching students how to answer the types of questions that are likely to be on the test, rather than teaching them the underlying mathematical concepts.
  • Loss of instructional time: If teachers spend a lot of time preparing students for assessments, they may have less time for other instructional activities, such as providing students with opportunities for hands-on learning or engaging in project-based learning.

It is important to be aware of the potential consequences of the reciprocal relationship between assessment outcomes and policy-making so that we can make informed decisions about how to use assessment data to improve mathematics education.