Don’t panic! Reflections on Assessment

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So, the Secretary of State for Education announced that Levels are going.  They won’t be replaced as they aren’t being used as designed and parents don’t get it.  In other ground breaking news, the capital of Wales is Cardiff.  Do bear in mine that these are personal reflections from time in classrooms and successfully getting young people to achieve and feel successful.  In my view, there are two purposes to assessment:

  • To help children get better (formative assessment);
  • To report on how much someone has learned (summative assessment).

There’s no need to panic here.  Firstly, teachers are already professionals used to using a wide range of assessment techniques every day in every lesson.  As mentioned in recent research, the most effective (and cheapest way) of raising achievement is through effective teacher feedback.  I pop in and out of lessons every day and see all manner of assessment techniques that aim to allow students to get better.  The problem I suppose, is what do we do for the second focus of assessment.  I don;t assume for one minute that young people are going to stop wanting to know how well they are doing.  OUr Key Stage 3 surveys demonstrate annually that young people are motivated to do even better if there are clear goals to reach.  Also, parents are going to want to know how well their children are doing.  One question often raised at Parent’s Evenings is how well the students are going to do at GCSE. Even in Year 7 8 9.

The door is open for schools to reinvent the wheel, or we could do something ground breaking and change the numerical levels into numbers.  Problem solved.  My point is, that Key Stage 3 summative assessment is always going to be informed by Key Stages 4 and 5 as well as the National Curriculum Content.  Let’s not forget, that the current mental system of sub levels came about because school leaders felt the need to pander to Ofsted instead of using the levels for what they were designed for.  Giving autonomy to schools isn’t necessarily going to lead to a better system.  Also, there isn’t a need to invent any new system, as they already exist and are used in schools.  The issue is not how teachers allow children to become better through formative assessment but it’s in creating a system that parents and children understand and are able to compare how well they are doing.

From reading the brief statement (that says nothing new from the KS3 consultation documents) I can see the future:

“Although schools will be free to devise their own curriculum and assessment system, we will provide examples of good practice which schools may wish to follow.

Outstanding schools and teaching schools have an opportunity to take the lead in developing and sharing curriculum and assessment systems which meet the needs of their pupils.

We are continuing to work with the National Association of Head Teachers to support schools in the development and implementation of this new approach. We will also work with subject associations, education publishers and external test developers to signpost schools to a range of potential approaches.”

QCA schemes of work ringing any bells?  The ‘good practice’ published will, in my view, become adopted quickly as the system for two reasons.  Firstly, schools will be eager to prove to Ofsted that students are making progress. Secondly, schools will be ‘told’ how to prove this as the publishers and consultants rapidly adopt the ‘example’ best practice. 

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One issue is that schools have operating for so long within a system that spoon feeds them, perhaps we have slightly lost the ability to be creative and innovative and move away from what we know.  The blank sheet of paper is more terrifying than having eight details levels to unpick, and at least there is someone else to blame. Robust and personalised CPD is the key here as is collaboration between schools.

There are a number of issues that spring to mind if schools are to develop their own summative assessment models, from a secondary school perspective:

  • How do you know where students have gotten to at the transition between Key Stages?
  • Would this be a barrier to local collaboration between schools?
  • What would local CPD and face-to-face networks look like around assessment?
  • How would schools share Schemes of Work and assessments, creating collaboration?

Personally, as a teacher and school leader I want to Government to give me a national system of assessment.  This comprises maybe 5-10% of the assessment that happens in my classrooms on a daily basis.  The other 90-95% is the Assessment for Learning stuff that goes on day in day out and otherwise known as great teaching.

So what would I suggest?

Assessment, done properly, is all about building motivation in young people.  Progress, defined by doing something better, should be noticed, acknowledged and rewarded.   Ofqual deem ‘fit for purpose’  assessment to:

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Although written for the current GCSE consultation, everything there makes sense to me and would apply to any form of assessment anywhere.  As it’s a little content heavy (as it would be for GCSE), the danger is that the assessment tests the knowledge only rather than the skills, understanding and ability to apply knowledge to new situations.  In other words, learning is about knowing what to do when you don;t know what to do.

There are a few systems that I like.  I’m not suggesting a definitive solution here, and there would be work needed.  Also, remember that I don;t think that the AfL aspect needs work – teachers in my view are great at this already.  My focus is in throwing some ideas into the ring of what could constitute a national / regional / local / school wide system where parents and students know how much progress they are making.  After all, if there is no target how will we motivate young people? 

Firstly, I really like the Early Years Foundation Stage stuff. As the father of a three year old, it;s really clear how well my son is doing.  There is a nice mix of developmental and knowledge.  Furthermore, my son’s nursery has created a simple and effective system of letting us know how well he’s doing. I also think that the overarching principles rock:

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So why is there a need to reinvent the wheel again?  The Early Years Foundation Stage outlines a clear set of assessment aims that are adapted by the institution.  We know as parents how well our son is doing and can take steps to help him.  Of course, when applied to later stages, there is a need to adapt to reflect different starting points and this is where the school professional comes in. For example, it strikes me that reading ages is a simple assessment system of judging a child’s reading ability, plus it allows professional teachers and support staff to identify who needs help and who needs stretching.

Other systems I like are the badges style stuff that comes along.  If these were tied into sound assessment aims, a national system would be very nice.  The issue, at least for me, is that Mozilla Badges looks like this:

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Now, I’m not a very patient person and would ask an expert to knock up a system that matched what I wanted it to be.  Do schools have this expertise or will they be dependent on outside organisations and systems?  I love the idea of building up a briefcase of badges that a student can take with them, maybe mixing up other forms of accreditation as a side effect would be that learners would be more aware of what they could get.  This is similar to our DiGITAL LEADERS finding out about industry standard qualifications and wanting them at Priory as an alternative or complementary to GCSE.  The important point is that the school and professional teachers can come up with the system without any knowledge of how to set it up in Open Badges, they just need to find someone who would do it.  (I should add a disclaimer here that I am very late to the open badges party and need to find out more.)

Badges are becoming widespread and are about celebrating achievements.  Systems used by Mission Explore, Dan Ravel-Ellison and the National Trust allow young people to choose the challenges that they want to complete.  I wonder what a national system based around the National Curriculum and GCSE A’Level would look like?  It could be a wonderful experience where stage, not age really comes to the fore.  If a student in Year 5 could choose the Year 7 challenges, or a Year 9 complete some GCSE badges….. 

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Of course, how could play and exploring outdoors be used as the basis for assessing academic progress?  You know it can be.  Because, as I’ve argued before, learning is supposed to be hard and get learners (young and old) out of their comfort zone.  That doesn’t mean that it can also be fun, engaging and inspirational at the same time.

Finally, I haven’t even covered the idea that Universities and Employers should be feeding into the assessment system.  If school assessment systems are to prepare young people for the next stage in life, then surely they need to be all joined together?  Or am I just being silly.  I suppose as the ‘radical’ GCSE reforms will still rely upon rows of desks, silence and non-collaboration, then is there much point in being worried?

Anyway, rant, shout, ignore, converse, collaborate.  Your approach is up to you.

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