The Assessment Controversy.

I’m feeling brave this morning. Not that I shy away from moot points. I think they are essential. They encourage the debate required to transcend taking sides. Taking sides rarely works – you create violence or a standoff. Keeping the status quo doesn’t work, either. Controversy keeps arising because we haven’t got it right yet and we need to keep grappling until we do. So on that note, this blog feels controversial. I hope people can shed light on the whole thing around assessment for me – I’d be glad of it. Just please be kind. I don’t want a standoff. (See above). And be aware that I am coming from a primary background.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

Diagnostic Assessment.

I was recently surprised to learn that our local mechanic was unable to tell me what was wrong with my car. Forgive me if I get this wrong, but apparently, newer car engines are sealed units, and a computer is now responsible for running a diagnostic check on its health. The problem, here, is that the computer declared the engine to be fine. It wasn’t. I knew this because I know my car. It had begun behaving and sounding different. Sometimes, it wouldn’t start at all and other times; it would fire up without a hitch. But, ‘Computer says no.’

Assessment of Learning

There is no way we can get inside the sealed unit that is children’s brains and ‘see’ what is going on. A test won’t give you the full picture; teacher assessment won’t give you the full picture. What is needed is a building of experience and knowledge of the whole child, over time, to ‘sit beside’ them and assess where they are.

Assess comes from the Latin root: to sit beside.

The DfE’s post-COVID decision to apply an algorithm to A level results, ignoring teaching assessment, has provoked outrage. Children have been assessed according to the historical effectiveness of their school: if a school is deemed less effective, then pupils at their school could not have done well. Could they?

Teachers versus testing keeps rearing its head. We have to accept that both are inadequate ways of assessing learning on their own. And when I say learning, I do not mean performance. They are not the same thing. Learning is about lasting change and development; performance is about memory and luck. Memory, of course, is crucial to learning, but it is only a part of it.

The lack of trust in teacher assessment is complicated. This is because assessment judgements in this country are high stakes and teachers are only human. It’s also about the nature of what we are trying to assess. Children are not machines, and learning is affected by countless variables.

Teacher Versus Test.

Accurate assessment is key to raising standards. We need to get it right. We need to know what children can already do and what needs to improve. It isn’t rocket science even if it feels like it. Assessment informs next steps for learning as well as give quality assurance to employers and universities that an individual’s ability is what it says on the tin. And for this, we rely on exams and standardised tests. Even in many primary schools today, the test trumps teacher assessment. PIRA and PuMA tests, for example, are used to assess gaps in learning, but these too, do not give the full picture. Particularly at Key Stage one, where I would argue, if anywhere in a child’s school career, accurate assessment and teaching was crucial, it’s here. Many a teacher has watched a young child ‘tick a box, any old box’ so that they can end the pain of working through a booklet and go out to break. It’s important to say that ongoing assessment for learning is used by every teacher I know, but often it is the test’s judgement that tends to be valued by leadership.

So what do we do? Well, we can learn much from practice in the Early Years. Here, the best practice seeks to build a picture of the whole child from the get-go. What are they like? What are their interests? What can they do and what needs the opportunity to develop further. Assessment of the child is built from observation, listening to what they say, analysing their work, questioning – including, where appropriate – quizzing and testing. A cold test can throw up anomalies in teacher assessment that can be explored further. Now and again, an individual test outcome surprises me – whether they do worse or better than I had expected. Tests are still necessary, but they should inform teacher assessment – not the other way around.

Image by Augusto Ordonez from Pixabay

Crucially, 80% of the assessment in the Early Years comes from the child’s self-directed learning because if a child chooses to employ knowledge in their play, you can be assured that they have mastered it. It isn’t performance or regurgitation. This, of course, takes expert pedagogy and not, as many a key stage two colleague (including myself once upon a time!) has erroneously assumed, a matter of wiping noses and tying shoelaces.

Controversial point #1 You need to keep records and checklists.

Assessment is intricate and fluid. It entails teachers being on their toes and knowing their stuff. Personally, I have found, it also means the need to keep records and checklists, of where each of my charges are at any given time. There is no way I could hold all of that information in my head. Some of it. Not all of it. And if you want to pitch teaching well, you need the full picture and a bit of help to track how they are doing. It also creates shared meaning. When teachers collaborate to improve standards, it is clear – at an individual child level – who has mastered (mastered – not managed once) which competencies. Without this reference, there is no way to discuss and build a shared picture of a child’s ability and potential. Relying on the analysis of a standardised test is not enough.

The recent, active discouragement to use checklists from the DfE, MATs, OFSTED has annoyed me. The decision often comes from people who are not doing the job and honestly – not one has given me a good enough answer as to why they shouldn’t be used. I have asked many. Some say they encourage teachers to teach to assessment (insulting) or more frequently, they are said to negatively impact teacher workload. This brings me to moot point number two.

Controversial point #2 Responsive Teaching takes much effort.

Teaching is hard work. Teaching is foundationally assessing and planning. There are countless other ridiculous tasks that we could be relieved from. In fact, accurate assessment improves planning time – the two are two sides of the same coin. Cut back on one and the other will suffer. Well assessed and pitched teaching is also joyous. If we focus on planting the seeds, watering them; we are rewarded with happy, efficacious children who are blooming and teaching that is a joy because it is impactful and effective. Anything else is a drudge.

I would argue that assessment and accurate assessment (which I argue requires record keeping) is not something we can avoid. There is no short cut.

Or maybe there is – depending on the context of your school.

Controversial point #3 Teachers in some schools work harder than others.

I know. I’m asking for it. But hear me out. I am about to move to a school where standards have been historically low. We’re talking around 35% for the combined measure at the end of key stage two. In preparation, I checked out the EEF school families page to explore this further. How were other schools that shared a DNA of 60%+ pupil premium fairing? I contacted the top five schools with standards of +80% to ask, in their opinion, what the secret of their success was. Two schools got back to me, and both stated the need to track meticulously – with checklists and statements. This is what enabled them to take children from the lowest starting points to the highest standards because it allows teachers to pitch their teaching expertly and check for impact. I acknowledge that such a precise diagnostic approach may not be necessary for schools where children arrive with the expected level of development, who haven’t been through early trauma, who have been raised on a healthy diet etc. but I argue it is for schools where children arrive needing to make up lost ground to reach a level playing field.

Ongoing assessment for learning informs responsive teaching, but a checklist is a safety net and holds vast information that surely only a supercomputer could keep in its head without error. My own experience tells me this is true. Some have argued that checklists encourage a narrowing of the curriculum. (Again, insulting). I suppose it could, but it doesn’t have to. What it does take, though, is dedication, commitment and a whole lot of hard work.

So here it comes, why not pay teachers who work in challenging areas more – or provide weighted PPA time? I can testify, having worked in different schools, that some are easier to work in than others. Don’t get me wrong; teaching is hard work wherever you practice. However, I know when working in our most challenging (disadvantaged, improving, special) schools you have to give more heart, sweat and blood; the emotional load is larger. Teachers do it (hopefully) because they believe all children deserve the same opportunities. This isn’t sacrificed for workload. And dictating how this should be done at an operational level, like the DfE, OFSTED and even MAT SLTs can do, is to undermine our profession. I don’t know – perhaps this is the end goal. Deprofressionalised teachers are easier to manage and control.

School leadership is tricky. You need to be humble enough to listen and strong enough to stand your ground when your gut dictates it is necessary. If you can add to the debate, you’d be helping me out by commenting. Let me know what I am not getting.

Teachers hold the world in their hands.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Bill Woods

    Spot on and well said Shelley.
    (teacher in the 11plus days)

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