If your role involves the assessment of learning, whether in a classroom, the workplace or another setting, there are often risks involved. These risks don't always relate to health, safety and welfare, but to the assessment process and the decisions made. A bullet point summary of risks is at the end of this article, which grew the more I thought about it. I hope that you will view assessment in a new light after reading this.
Assessing a learner and confirming their success can be very rewarding. However, being aware of the risks will hopefully help prevent them occurring. This is particularly the case with summative assessment which is to confirm achievement. However, there can still be risks with formative assessment which is to check progress. Just ask yourself what could possibly go wrong, and if you think of something, then there is a risk.
Learner risks
You need to minimise risks such as putting unnecessary stress upon learners, over-assessing, under-assessing or being unfair and expecting too much too soon. Some learners might not be ready to be observed for a practical skill, or feel so pressured by target dates for a theory test that they resort to colluding or plagiarising work.
Assessor risks
There are risks on your part as an assessor, for example, pressure to pass learners quickly due to funding and targets might lead you to pass something that you normally wouldn't. There is also the risk that you might unknowingly offer favouritism or bias towards some learners over others. A risk to yourself could be if you carry out assessments in the work environment and visit places with which you are not familiar. You might need to travel early or late in the dark, find locations on foot, take public transport, or drive to areas you are not familiar with. If you are visiting places on your own, you will be classed as a lone worker and your organisation should have a policy for your protection. Having a mobile phone is helpful in such situations; if not, note where the nearest public phone is should you need it. You may find it useful to search the internet for the postcode you are visiting. This will give you a street map and pictures of the local area to enable you to visualise where you are going beforehand.
The type of employment contract you have might also pose a risk. For example, you might be part time and work for more than one organisation, or be working for an agency, or on a freelance basis. If you don't have a permanent contract, it could be difficult to determine who you report to if you have any concerns. If you are assessing towards a qualification, you will need to know who your internal quality assurer is, as they should support you in your role. Standardisation of practice might also be difficult if assessors are not all in the same location or working for the same organisation. You might not have access to the resources that permanent members of staff have and may need to provide your own such as personal protective equipment (PPE). There's also the risk of pressure upon you if your learners are allocated to you on a case load basis. For example, you might only be paid if your allocated number of learners complete the qualification.
Other risks
If you are assessing in the work environment, you might come across employers who are not supportive of their staff and may put barriers in their way. For example, someone might make it difficult for you to visit at a certain time to carry out a formal assessment. Careful planning and communication with everyone concerned will be necessary.
It could be that if you have close friends or relatives who you are required to assess, you might not be allowed to, or if you do, your decisions would need to be countersigned by another impartial assessor. Your decisions should also go through an internal quality assurance process. If it's an accredited qualification, the awarding organisation will be able to give you guidance regarding this.
If you have any concerns regarding risks to yourself, your learners, or your assessment decisions, you must discuss them with someone, e.g. your supervisor or internal quality assurer. Being aware of any risks to the assessment process, yourself or your learners, and taking opportunities to discuss any issues should help alleviate their occurrence.
Situations which could pose a risk to assessment (in alphabetical order)

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  • a lack of confidence by the assessor to make correct decisions
  • a lack of standardisation activities leading to one assessor giving more of an advantage to a learner than another assessor of the same subject
  • a learner copying another learner's work
  • a learner's lack of confidence or resistance to be assessed
  • an assessor not taking into account a learner's particular needs
  • an unsuitable environment for assessment to take place
  • answers to questions being obtained inappropriately by learners which leads to cheating
  • assessing relatives without having decisions countersigned
  • assessing written work too quickly and not noticing errors, plagiarism or cheating
  • assessors giving learners the answers or doing some of the work for them
  • assessors using inappropriate assessment activities
  • assessors using leading questions to obtain the correct answers they require
  • assessors visiting unfamiliar places and under pressure to arrive by a certain time
  • awarding organisations prescribing assessment methods which might not complement the qualification, a learner's needs or the learning environment
  • changes to qualifications or standards not being interpreted correctly by assessors, or not being communicated to assessors by others
  • employers not supportive of assessment in the workplace, or are not good at communicating with the assessor
  • favouritism and bias by an assessor towards some learners over others
  • feedback to the learner which is unhelpful or ineffective
  • ineffective internal quality assurance system
  • instructions too complex or too easy for the learners' ability
  • insufficient or incorrect action/assessment planning
  • internal and external quality assurance action points not being correctly communicated to those concerned, or not carried out
  • lack of resources or time to perform the assessment role correctly
  • learners creating a portfolio of evidence which is based on quantity rather than quality, i.e. submitting too much evidence which does not meet the requirements
  • learners not registered with an awarding organisation prior to being assessed
  • learners submitting the work of others as their own
  • learners using quotes from others when answering theory questions and not referencing them, leading to plagiarism
  • marking and grading carried out incorrectly by assessors
  • misinterpreting the assessment requirements and/or criteria (by learners and assessors)
  • pressure on assessors to pass learners quickly due to funding and targets
  • time pressures and targets put upon learners
  • unreliable witness testimonies from the workplace
  • unsuitable assessment methods i.e. an observation when questions would suffice
  • unsuitable assessment types i.e. summative being used instead of formative
  • unwelcome disruptions and interruptions when assessing, such as noise or telephone calls.

If you know of any other risks, please let me know. I'll be bringing out a new edition of Principles and Practices of Assessment in January 2016 and I will be adding the list to it.
This article is copyright Ann Gravells. The next article from Ann Gravells will be: Learner support and learning support
Ann Gravells is an author, creator of teacher training resources and an education consultant

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