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Assessment: getting the measure of what recent commentators have said

Written By: Lisa Pettifer
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11 min read
Our understanding of assessment and how it should be done is troubled, but we're getting closer.

This digest takes teachers through a range of works from a new ‘generation’ of education authors. Most of the authors referenced are teachers or former teachers, academics focusing on assessment, or working parties set up by recent governments to investigate assessment practice, schools’ needs in assessment or teacher development relating to understanding of assessment.

Are we nearly there yet?

Our understanding of what assessment is, how it should be done, how doing it should be learned and how we know when we’ve done it well is still somewhat troubled, but we seem to be getting closer to our destination.

According to Dylan Wiliam, assessment is, among other things, ‘evidence about learning’ (as referenced in Didau p.277), and ‘a procedure for drawing conclusions’ (Twitter 25/03/2018) – both of these pointing to the interrogative, dynamic and iterative natures of the many processes involved.

Assessment is one of the most crucial aspects of our work as teachers – how else would we know what our students have learned, or how well? Yet it is still one of the most neglected areas of our development. In spite of the 2012 Teachers’ Standards document’s focus on assessment (Standard 6), in 2015, the Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training found that further improvements were still needed: ‘ITT should equip new teachers to use summative as well as formative approaches and should introduce them to important concepts in assessment (such as validity, reliability, norm and criterion referencing). New teachers should also be taught theories of assessment – for example, why, when and how to assess. Trainees also need to be taught how to use pupil data, including training in basic statistics.’

This followed on from several prompts for better professional development, both within the training phase (‘assessment for learning should figure more prominently in the ITT standards’ (Assessment Reform Group, 1999)) and for ‘sustained programmes of professional development and support’ (Black and Wiliam, 1998) for in-service teachers. Calls for ‘a range of examples…integrated into classroom practice and into the planning of schemes of work, across age groups and across subjects’ (Assessment Reform Group, 1999) were made, recognising pressure on teacher time as a key prohibiting factor to further embedding ‘assessment for learning’ practice beyond ‘fire and forget’ CPD sessions.

Teacher learning about the effective operation of feedback strategies is therefore vital.

From ‘first steps’ to ‘stepping stones’

In initial teacher training, many beginner teachers are taught about some of the essential concepts of assessment – all teachers will be familiar with the terms ‘formative’ and ‘summative’ assessment. These are often presented respectively as ongoing teacher or other in-class evaluation intended to continue to move learning forward, and the use of a (usually) written test to assign a final grade or level at the end of a phase of teaching.

The next stage is to think further about how and why these different assessment strategies might be used, and for whose benefit. In his recent book, The Truth about Teaching (2018), Greg Ashman makes a clear distinction between formative assessment as a focus for teachers’ use, and summative assessment as useful for students, parents and presumably other outside agencies to judge progress over time. Ashman argues that the ‘more fluid forms of assessment have as much, if not more, impact on the quality of instruction on a daily basis’. Without regularly revisiting the curriculum through active assessment-linked teaching – whether through low-stakes tests, questioning or re-teaching – Ashman goes on to argue, ‘teachers do not assess the obvious and students don’t realise that they don’t know it’.

Beyond this distinction, most will be well-versed in the themes of the ‘Black Box’ discussions of the late 1990s onwards, which gave rise to the key ‘Assessment for Learning’ strategies. Ofsted recapped these in ‘Assessment for learning: the impact of National Strategy support’ (2008). In the document, the authors write:

‘The ‘10 principles’ for assessment for learning are that it:

  • is part of effective planning
  • focuses on how pupils learn
  • is central to classroom practice
  • is a key professional skill
  • is sensitive and constructive
  • fosters motivation
  • promotes understanding of goals and criteria
  • helps learners know how to improve
  • develops the capacity for peer and self-assessment
  • recognises all educational achievement.’

Recently, our understanding of assessment has taken us along two paths – responsive teaching and teaching to the test. It’s often hard to see how, or whether, these paths converge.

Beyond ‘Assessment for Learning’

Nevertheless, as our understanding of the importance of assessment has grown, and our acceptance that ‘assessment is one of the most powerful educational tools for promoting effective learning’ (Assessment Reform Group, 1999) has been consolidated, some argue that standards still haven’t risen and that ‘there has been no (or at best limited) effect on learning outcomes nationally’ (Coe, 2013). Ofsted (2008) reported disappointment with many schools’ implementation of assessment for learning, saying ‘the impact on achievement and provision was no better than satisfactory in almost two thirds of the schools visited’. The report went on to emphasise the need for a ‘very clear whole-school vision’ to ensure improvement.

Recently, our understanding of assessment has taken us along two paths – the pathway to ‘responsive teaching’ and that of ‘teaching to the test’. It’s often hard to see how, or whether, these paths converge.

The integration of teaching, learning and assessment in the spirit of ‘responsive teaching’, is a key idea that teachers are currently developing. The term has been used by Dylan Wiliam in outlining the teacher’s role following assessment when seen as ‘a procedure for drawing conclusions’ (Twitter 25/03/2018) and is used by Harry Fletcher-Wood in his book of the same name. Within this work, assessment is approached as an integral part of various aspects of teaching, linked inextricably with planning, modelling, evaluation and feedback. Fletcher-Wood is open about the possible weaknesses of feedback strategies as part of effective assessment, citing Kluger and de Nisi (1996). He outlines their conclusions based on 600 experiments – ‘feedback sometimes improves performance, sometimes debilitates it and sometimes has no effect’.

Teacher learning about the effective operation of feedback strategies is therefore vital. Fletcher-Wood says to not ‘start with feedback’ as several earlier stages in the teaching and learning process need to be right before we can even attempt feedback that will accelerate progress. Firstly, teaching itself has to be effective before student outcomes can be assessed or responded to; students need to know what they are aiming to achieve and what success looks like; tasks need to be designed with assessment in mind so that they elicit the types of information that reveal gaps and misinterpretations in a way that students can respond to when these have been pointed out.

In Memorable Teaching, Peps Mccrae considers the input of students themselves into ongoing processes of understanding, learning and assessment. At the end of the book that focuses largely on cognitive-based strategies for learning, he advises teachers to ’embed metacognition’ via the principles of:

  •  ‘Metaknowledge [whereby] students develop an understanding of memorable learning’
  • ‘Self-regulation’ through which students are ‘clear about their academic goals, aware of how they are progressing towards them and can course-correct in the moment’
  • ‘Calibration [where] students are able to accurately assess their own level of understanding’.

Underpinned by theories from cognitive psychology, the strategies in this book encourage teachers to consider attention, memory, learning, improvement and assessment as closely interlinked processes that need to be optimised through careful teacher planning.

In the blogpost, The problem with past exam papers, Alex Quigley ponders the contradictory aims of mock exams for the purposes of judging student progress towards final exam targets with the view that ‘getting our students to write multiple full essays and do repeated mocks’ is a ‘flawed’ approach. Quigley argues that students should have time ‘to accumulate and remember the knowledge and understanding required to play the “big game” with success’. He outlines a range of subject-related, low-stakes recall and practice activities, such as quizzes and discussions, which would allow a teacher to ‘more accurately diagnose gaps in knowledge, repair miscomprehensions, and more’ before work on exam techniques begins. To neglect these stages is to put our accountability and data systems at odds with ongoing teaching and learning.

Summer Turner’s approach in Secondary Curriculum and Assessment Design (2016) is to recommend very close links between curriculum content and appropriate mechanisms for assessment, based on her premise that ‘educational history has taught us the danger of focusing on assessment over curriculum’. Turner reminds us, when planning subject content initiatives, to ‘use the ideas and principles of your curriculum to inform your assessment’. She advises us to ‘decide on the purpose of an assessment before setting it’ as without this stage it is difficult to be ‘clear what kind of inferences you can make from the results’.

Short- and long-term assessment

As teachers embedded in the day-to-day reality of classroom interaction, we are constantly, simultaneously, looking in different directions:

  • ‘How much and well are my students learning right now, how do I know, and what can I do next to ensure further progress?’
  • ‘How do I get them to this point in terms of exam preparation in time for the exam?’

It is often easy to consider our marking as a sign of our skill in assessment, but as Carl Hendrick cautions in the first chapter of his and Robin McPherson’s What Would This Look Like in the Classroom? (2017), ‘a set of marked booked is traditionally seen as an effective proxy for good teaching’. This notion can be explored through two further considerations: in Butler’s well-known study (1988), students demonstrated limited progress when comments on work were given along with scores/marks/grades. The study illustrates that comments alone, plus opportunities for and expectation of responses to these, are more useful for requiring students to take responsibility for development. Linked to this, we now see the rise of ‘whole-class feedback’ sheets, reducing teachers’ workloads in the hope of increasing traction on students’ focus on areas for development.

In Making Every Lesson Count (2015), Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby present ‘six principles to support great teaching and learning’. Within their framework, assessment is seen as multi-faceted and present throughout all stages of planning, teaching, checking learning in different ways and communicating next steps to students through different phases and forms of feedback. The book is based on research – such as the ‘The Power of Feedback’ (Hattie and Timperley, 2007) identifies four categories of feedback: (i) on the task or product (ii) on the process used to create the product (iii) on self-regulation (iv) on a personal level. Teachers’ exposure to, and understanding of, such categories helps the systematic evaluation of practice and spurs teachers to be methodical in their application of the outlined essential principles.

Recently, our understanding of assessment has taken us along two paths – responsive teaching and teaching to the test. It’s often hard to see how, or whether, these paths converge.

Every time a memory is brought to mind, it is reconstructed and reinforced. When students take a quiz, they are not just checking their memory – they are enhancing it.
Sumeracki, M. & Weinstein, Y.

Getting assessment wrong?

In her blog, The Wing to Heaven, Daisy Christodoulou highlights ‘the adverb problem’ i.e. when prose descriptors are used to attempt to criterion reference levels of achievement. Consider these examples from a former incarnation of GCSE English Literature coursework criteria: compare ‘successfully communicate insight’ with ‘candidates respond critically and sensitively’ and ‘candidates respond cogently’. One of these is from the A* statement bank, the others from the A and B grade statements. Yet it is far from clear which is which.

When developing these concerns further in her book Making Good Progress? (2017), Christodoulou explains that such criteria fail to distinguish between levels of resource difficulty (e.g. whether students are responding to Of Mice and Men or Romeo and Juliet for example), or task difficulty (e.g. the statement ‘can compare two fractions to identify which is larger’ could legitimately lead to such questions as, ‘Which is bigger: 3/7 or 5/7?’ where 90% of 14-year-olds can answer accurately, or ‘Which is bigger: 5/7 or 5/9?’ where only 15% of answers were correct). Such statements can also fail to account for differences in short-term performance and long-term learning.

Before we become comfortable in our understanding of assessment, in What if Everything you knew about Education was Wrong? (2015), David Didau challenges us to consider aspects of established ‘assessment for learning’ strategy – such as sharing success criteria – as shallow and arbitrary, inducing mimicry and superficial ‘performance’ rather than embedding learning as a long-term development of ability or understanding. Didau describes the notion that ‘you can assess what pupils have learned in an individual lesson’ as ‘flawed’ because ‘you cannot see learning; you can only see performance’. Science teacher Niki Kaiser makes a similar point in her article, Mimicry is not Mastery, for Nature Reviews Chemistry. She cautions against the acceptance of ‘correct’ answers that might not reveal a lack of conceptual understanding, or of really knowing ‘how or why they are right’.

Picking up the pieces

In Understanding How We Learn (2018) Dr Megan Sumeracki and Dr Yana Weinstein speak of assessment as part of the ‘reinforcement of learning’. In order to assess for long-term learning, not just short-term performance, class structures such as quizzes can be useful: ‘Every time a memory is brought to mind, it is reconstructed and reinforced. When students take a quiz, they are not just checking their memory – they are enhancing it.’ Teachers are applying such awareness from cognitive psychology in devising recall activities such as ‘Five a day’ starters, and ‘Do Now’ tasks.

Such challenges lead us to find out more about the nature of assessment. Swanick (1988, cited in Impact 1) argues that ‘to teach is to assess’ and efforts to integrate the two in closely connected strategies to ensure progress are still being developed. If we accept Swanwick’s assertion here, then proficiency in assessment, its purposes, methods and forms, strike at the heart of our professional identity. Effective training in assessment methods is still the limiting factor in teacher development in both ITT and CPD. If we accept the Assessment Reform Group’s original assertion that ‘assessment is one of the most powerful educational tools for promoting effective learning’ along with Ofsted’s caution (2008) and Coe’s more recent worries about limited effect on learning outcomes, we need better training to make this happen.

Teachers and teams who have the time, energy and interest to self-start their own learning and maintain their own improvement may have read and discussed some of the above; they might be engaged in the school-wide integration of assessment principles. Others may use online guides and courses, such as the Evidence Based  Education’s ‘Assessment Lead Programme’ or the Education Endowment Foundation’s ‘Assessing and monitoring pupil progress’ course, which as the EEF says, informs ‘a well-led and clearly-defined approach to assessment which itself sits within a well-led and clearly-defined vision for teaching’. Such programmes may be useful in driving CPD, particularly with regards to assessing progress without levels, in that they offer information regarding test purpose and design, biases in assessment and impact evaluation. The EEF guidance concludes powerfully: ‘If assessment in your school performs a function to support learning that no other tool could, and if it does so in a way that provides reliable data to draw valid inferences about learning, you will be well on your way to great assessment.’

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