In many ways, if assessment does not add to the sum of knowledge about a child, it has to be seen as questionable. If the test scores, the smiley faces of the acres of marking in response to an outcome doesn’t add to the teacher’s understanding, they are a waste of time. Just doing the test does not promote learning. Unpicking the areas where errors or misconceptions occurred might lead to some gap filling, if the complementary discussion leads the learner to understand the nature of the error and the means to address it.
In other words, the data derived from assessment is only as good as the information that derives from it and the actions that then follow to promote learning, in one or thirty children.
This is not an argument for pure subject knowledge, but might be an argument for being able to interact with the learning journeys of the learners who are working within a subject; understanding how learners come to progressively understand the subject, linking new information with what they already know.
Assessment puts teachers into an investigative mode; to what extent do they really understand what they have been taught? This requires quality questioning skills, being prepared to dig a little deeper where responses require clarification. Testing is only ever as good as the questions being asked.
We know these things today because assessment became a “thing” as part of the original National Curriculum. Since then, it has morphed into “data” and created several layers of accountability that may not impact directly on learning in classes.
Working with trainees today, I try to get them to see assessment in every action, that it is a significant characteristic of reflective teaching, responding to the evidence before them.
And 1987 begat TGAT
In 1987, I was the deputy head of a First School, 4-8 year olds, in the South East of Hampshire, when a document passed into my hands with the request to read, distil and disseminate to the staff, the current thinking on assessment. This was because I was responsible for teaching and learning and assessment was seen as an arm of that.
The National Writing Project had been an active part of the developing school practice, as it complemented already existing practices. It emphasised the process of writing, from initial idea through to the drafting stage, with children actively engaged in the whole process and ongoing evaluation, with peer critique as an element of final evaluation.
When the National Curriculum documentation arrived in school, each subject manager audited the new demands against what was on offer and there was a 95% correspondence; a few maths and science topics needed tweaking.
The 67 page report from the Government’s Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT) was published under the leadership of Professor Paul Black, with three supplementary reports published in March 1988, in response to public consultation. These publications made reference to work undertaken by Dylan Wiliam and Margaret Brown and also early work by Carol Dweck.
These reports supported thinking about assessment during the implementation of the original National Curriculum.
Over time, this was altered and added to, as assessment became a thing, within a wide range of proprietary approaches to assessment that created short cuts and, in so doing, reduced much assessment to tests and mark sheets and scores, rather than the holistic descriptors of children that were originally described. These approaches, I am sure, led to the removal of levels, yet, for all that, the words embedded in the descriptors were eminently useful.
What was interesting, in the context of the developing documentation, was the raising of the quality of discussion within the school and between the schools in the cluster feeding the Secondary school. It gave a common language, to accompany the common themes of learning, especially English and Maths. As a result, outcomes rose and children were motivated by both the sense of achievement and their understanding of their personal learning journey. The level descriptors also gave a voice to non-specialists, who had a framework of descriptions that brought some coherence to how a subject deepened in challenge and expectation. They were never prefect, but they were a guide.
I thought it would be useful to go back and highlight some of the original intentions of the task group, by sharing the conclusions. The link to the whole document is at the foot of the blog. It shows me that over time, the many shortcuts that are sought and sold as panaceas that ease the workload, actually distort the whole to the point where they create a new level of workload. It also shows that assessment principles do not essentially change.
Being able to describe where a child is at any particular moment in time and their next learning step has been the bread and butter of teaching for as long as I can remember. Long may it be so.
For those who would like to look at the conclusions of the original TGAT report, just that section is below. The full report and the supplements can be seen via the links at the bottom of the blog. You will see that the original premise was to support teachers in doing their day job. The changes to practice, from around 1997, were in relation to Government requirements for data and judgements on schools.
219. Whilst the system we propose draws on many aspects of good practice that are already established, it is radically new in the articulation and comprehensive deployment of methods based on such experience. We are confident that the system we describe is practicable and can bring benefits to work both within schools and outside them. In particular, we can see how provision of new types of support within a framework of a new set of procedures can replace much of the large volume of testing and assessment at present in use. A co-ordinated system will use resources to better effect and will complement and support the existing assessment work that teachers already carry out. Thus the system should contribute to the raising of educational standards so that the broad educational needs of individuals and the national need to enhance the resources and skills of young people can be met.
Building on good classroom practice
220. As we stressed in our Introduction, the proposed procedures of assessment and testing bear directly upon the classroom practices of teachers. A system which was not closely linked to normal classroom assessments and which did not demand the professional skills and commitment of teachers might be less expensive and simpler to implement, but would be indefensible in that it could set in opposition the processes of learning, teaching and assessment.
Formative assessment to support learning
221. Our terms of reference stress that the assessment to be proposed must be "supportive of learning in schools". We reiterate that the four criteria set out in Section 1 are essential if this support is to be secured and we believe that they necessarily follow from the aims expressed in the consultative document on the national curriculum. The formative aspect follows almost by definition. For the system to be formative it must produce a full and well-articulated picture of the individual child's current strengths and future needs. No simple label 1-6 will achieve this function, nor is any entirely external testing system capable of producing the necessary richness of information without placing an insuperable load of formal assessment on the child. The formative aspect calls for profile reporting and the exercise of the professional judgement of teachers.
222. The system is also required to be formative at the national level, to play an active part in raising standards of attainment. Criterion-referencing inevitably follows. Norm-referenced approaches conceal changes in national standards. Whatever the average child accomplishes is the norm and if the average child's performance changes the reported norm remains the same figure. Only by criterion-referencing can standards be monitored. Only by criterion-referencing can they be communicated. Formative assessment requires the involvement of the professional judgement of teachers. Criterion-referencing helps to inform these judgements. Group moderation will enable the dissemination of a shared language for discussing attainment at all levels – the central function of assessment. These three features will help to emphasise growth. They result in progression – a key element in ensuring that pupils and parents receive focused and evolving guidance throughout their school careers. Consistent and de-motivating confirmation of everything as it was at the previous reporting age can be avoided only if pupils and parents can have clear evidence of progress by use of the single sequence of levels across all ages in the way that we propose.
The unity of our proposals
223. We have considered systems of assessment and testing which are very different from the one that we propose. All alternatives impoverish the relationships between assessment and learning, so that the former harms the latter instead of supporting it. Most of them give no clear information or guidance about pupils' achievement or progress, and they all risk interference with, rather than support of, teachers' work with pupils. Thus we cannot recommend any simpler alternative to our proposals. There is of course room for variation in their implementation: for example, using group moderation procedures for a restricted number of profile components, or not using all such procedures on every annual assessment cycle, or phasing in more slowly to spread the load on teachers and on the support systems. None of these marginal changes would destroy essential features of our system, although they might weaken its impact in the short term. However, any major change that we can envisage would destroy the linked unity of our proposals and lose most of the benefits which they are aimed to secure within and for the national curriculum.
Securing teachers' commitment
224. The underlying unity of the three aspects of education – teaching, learning, and assessment – is fundamental to the strategy which informs our proposals. The strategy will fail if teachers do not come to have confidence in, and commitment to, the new system as a positive part of their teaching. Securing this commitment is the essential pre-condition for the new system to realise the considerable value that it could bring.
225. Among the conditions which will have to be met to secure this professional commitment will be the following:
• Clear acceptance that the aim is to support and enhance the professional skills that teachers already deploy to promote learning.
• Clear recognition that the focus of responsibility for operation of a new system lies with teachers within schools.
• Stress on the formative aims and on giving clear guidance about progress to pupils and to their parents.
• Widespread consultation and discussion before proposals are put into effect.
• A realistic time-scale for phasing in a new system.
• Adequate resources, including in-service provision.
• Help with moderation procedures so that the system contributes to communication within schools, between schools, parents and governors, and to the community as a whole about the realisation and evaluation of the aims of schools.
• Sensitive handling of any requirements for outside reporting, recognising that simplistic procedures could mislead parents, damage schools, and impair relations between teachers and their pupils.
226. If there is one main motive to explain our support for the system we propose, it is that we believe that it can provide the essential means for promoting the learning development of children: support for teachers in enhancing the resources and professional skills which they deploy.
Task Group on Assessment and Testing. First report.
Task Group on Assessment and Testing. Supplementary reports