Life after levels- embracing the change

I have lost count of the number of times I have had discussions with teachers and trainees who have explained that they would like to be more effective assessors.

With data driven agendas, an obsessive link between progress, performance related pay and a fixation (at times) with unrealistic targets, it is understandable that there has been a developing consensus amongst teachers that assessment is “done to them”; that assessment and tracking systems are viewed solely as a summative process designed to scrutinise and pick fault at the performance of even the most committed and talented practitioners. It is no wonder, that across many countries we have now grown a culture where a large proportion of teachers are anxious about assessment, and in worst case scenarios play the systems to look favourable to themselves and their hard working pupils.

I believe that effective assessment for learning lies at the very heart of good practice and should be a significant performance indicator during Teacher Training and Performance Management processes.

I am a huge supporter of assessing without levels and the shift away from over-reliance on testing. I see this relatively new agenda as an opportunity for all good educators to embrace a positive change; to put the focus back on what happens day in, day out in outstanding classrooms. I advocate the views of Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, who states that, “Reaching a certain level does not necessarily mean a child has grasped a key idea, as levels are derived in different ways”. He also goes on to say ““The shift in ideas about ability and in assessment practice means that teachers will have to become experts in assessment in a way they have not had to before. They need to think hard about questions they put to children both through question and answer and on paper. They need to really probe pupils’ understanding”.

Getting this right will undoubtedly impact on the quality of teaching and learning in lessons.

It appears to me that many teachers (perhaps through no fault of their own) are missing the point of assessment; they don’t fully understand the value and impact of on-going and formative assessment and are living in fear that the use of tests to measure pupil progress impacts negatively on the way they are viewed as professionals and will result ultimately in their failure.

Yes, it is true that teachers should be ambitious, set high expectations of their learners and be finely in tune with the attainment level of each and every child. Yes, it is true that teachers should be held accountable for the progress their pupils make but we must not lose sight of what assessment actually means for our pupils; narrow assessment measures and endless tests do not make better teachers and they certainly do not make happier learners. Good teacher assessment derives from excellent and inclusive classroom practice and focuses on the needs and progress of all pupils. Whilst we should have high aspirations for our pupils, there should be an understanding that progress is not perfectly linear and that children are incredible, unpredictable and multi-faceted creatures whose learning can be affected by factors beyond our control and for complex reasons.

I believe that good quality assessment can be achieved through following a number of basic principles: knowing why you are assessing, knowing what to assess, knowing how to get that information and knowing what to do with the information thereafter. If any of these principles are not fully understood, then the assessment process becomes arbitrary and irrelevant.

Start with the “why?” It is likely that teachers will tell you that we assess so that they know how well their children are achieving and this will inform what they teach next. This is true but only part of the story. Effective assessment means that we need to know what children can do at any given time so that we can act swiftly and enable progress at the point of teaching. Tests tell us nothing about the thought process that the child went through or at which point the learning failed or succeeded.

Move on to the “what?” Teachers can become distracted by coverage and content of lessons during the planning phase when in fact they should start by identifying what skill they want the pupils to learn and what the outcome could look like at multiple levels of understanding? Only then, can a lesson be designed in a purposeful way which will enable progress. It is not enough to simply deliver the lesson and hope for the best.

So then consider the “how?” Mini tests may play a part but teachers should not use these as a dominant form of formative assessment; they must not lose sight of the importance of good quality questioning. Pupils should be given the time, space and encouragement to talk about their learning.  Children should be given resources to show their learning and facilitate explanations.Teachers need to see this learning in progress in order to make an accurate judgement as to how well they have secured a skill. The National Curriculum for England and Wales (2014) states that pupils will learn fewer concepts in more depth so this enables rich and purposeful discussion to take place between teachers and pupils.For maximum impact, teachers should ensure that pupils themselves are able to identify where they have succeeded or where they have encountered difficulties.

Finally, teachers need to be clear on what to do with assessment information after it has been gathered. The Assessment for learning agenda was created to ensure that teachers purposefully used assessment information in lessons in order to maximise subsequent progress. Teachers need to be fully trained in giving good quality, age appropriate verbal and written feedback at the point that learning is live. Precious momentum is lost when teachers are pressured to write a watered down and useless comment in 30+ books every night. What is important is ensuring that the teachers give timely and concise feedback and that children fully understand the “language” of the marking and how that links to the next steps of learning. Summative assessment in the form of a level is therefore useless to a child. It is impossible to know what a child needs to do next when there is simply a level presented to them. Level descriptors have helped to break down where the focus needs to go next but essentially, rich discussions and a shared language of success criteria with the child is the best way to ensure good progress is made.

Scandanavian countries such as Finland rate very highly in the PISA ratings and it cannot be a coincidence that they have full autonomy over Curriculum and Assessment systems in their schools and that league tables do not exist. I am not suggesting for one moment, that we should abolish standardised tests altogether, as I believe there is a place for them within a much wider context. However, I am excited for a future where British and British Curriculum schools should flourish under increased autonomy to design a relevant and exciting School Curriculum and take ownership over assessment systems; leaders know their schools best, teachers know their pupils best and high quality assessment should be integral to the continual outstanding practice within schools and central to the continuing professional development of all teachers.

References

Oates, Timothy CBE (2014) Group Director of Assessment Research and Development. Available: http://www.cambridgeassessment.org.uk/insights/national-curriculum-tim-oates-on-assessment-insights/