This month, I have two events at which I am speaking about aspects of assessment. Not being a salesperson for any specific product or approach, I want to focus on the purposes and approaches that can be adopted within a classroom, where decisions are taken, often on a minute by minute basis.
Everything is assessment, it’s the way good teachers think. Look up-down and sideways
Think engaging and appropriate activity, think learning, think progress and outcomes, think on your feet and adapt for evident need, Think before, during and after the event. That is assessment; thinking, about each and every child’s response to the learning situation. Spotting those whose behaviours show lack of understanding or effort and those who may be finding the task easy.
High awareness, high surveillance and rapid and purposeful intervention.
To me, assessment is just another way of saying “Know your children, well, and get to know them even better”; to define and constantly refine where they are academically, socially and personally, so that they can be challenged or supported through carefully planned activities and interventions. Assessment in one sense is about data, but, more importantly, it is about individual children and their life chances, developed through the best available teaching and learning opportunities.
To be effective, assessment has to be seen as informed, rational judgement, leading to specific adaptation of intention, through a variety of means. Most assessment is situational, being at one level a sense that something is not going as it should and seeking to make whole again. It can also mean that under-expectation means that the level of challenge (perhaps for a few) has to be recalibrated.
Looking for inspiration in the thesaurus, the following revealed itself. These are some of the synonyms for assessment. It is possible to argue that all assessment if formative, even a test, as it informs subsequent decisions about the direction and speed of learning.
Information is gathered at discrete points before and during entry into formal education settings, which forms the start point for ongoing investigation and record keeping that then informs continuing decisions. It is often a case of moderating, validating and triangulating the available information to best effect, as very young children may be less willing or able to take formal tests of capability.
Information is passed through the system, for different purposes. Children need to know where they are with their learning and what they need to do to get better. Teachers need to know where they are so that they can plan effectively and monitor their progress. Heads need to know that the teachers know their children well and that they are making appropriate progress. External validators need to know that the school is achieving well and challenging itself to do even better.
But, too often, there is the sense that the top drives down on the system, wanting specific things, leading to a narrowing of focus and effort to ever finer demands.
For this reason, I have developed the idea of system wide dialogue, with information, rather than judgement being passed from one level to another. Again, moderation, validation and triangulation would seem to support system improvement.
If you take any five children at random from within a class, you will have a mixed ability group; even if you seek to group by ability, you will have a range. If each child is known individually, then it is possible to fine tune demand and expectation for each, even within a broad task. It takes some mental organisation, thinking broadly, rather than in a linear fashion, but the developing interactions within learning activities support insights and decision-making.
In making these decisions, the criteria descriptions are a far stronger aspect of progress than any numeric system that might accompany the words. This to me was the strength of the original Level Descriptors from the first National Curriculum, and did, in the early stages of the NC, encourage teachers to look for better outcomes from children, as the descriptors gave clarity to expectation, which could then be exemplified by developing outcomes.
While the children in a class may not be the same, they are entitled to the same quality of expectation, challenge, activity, support and feedback on outcomes, so that they each have the opportunity to celebrate progress, however small. It is demoralising to feel that hard work is not being translated into progress and therefore might result in limited praise, which may be the lot of more able peers, who manage to achieve more easily.
Teachers make decisions all the time. I’m sure that many would be aware of the Plan-Do-Review approach to teaching and learning. I’d want to improve that to Analyse-Plan-Do-Review-Record (APDRR), to embed the idea of knowing the children well at the start of the process. Attached to each of the APDRR strands is a series of sub-tasks which seek to describe the holistic nature of the cyclic process.
Working often with ITT students, one of the potential individual weaknesses can be a lack of understanding of progress through time and experience, with significant markers to be taught, sought and encouraged. Standard 2 (progress and outcomes) is therefore very significant in this regard. Subject knowledge is often embedded in the degree studied and the prior journey to achieve that. However, a degree level student may have limited memory of how they made the early part of the journey, unless their parents have kept examples and exercise books.
Knowing the journey from EYFS to year 6 in a Primary school is, for some a very significant development, from the early stages to level 5 or 6, as measured through KS2 SATs in Maths and English. This is a journey from early mark making that embeds some meaning, through to relatively sophisticated writing and maths. Knowing the staging posts along the way is an essential need for any teacher, at any stage in their career.
With levels being discontinued after this year, if I was still a headteacher, I’d want to follow a simple process to establish in-school expectations.
- Set a whole school writing task. Consider the needs of different subjects as a second tier.
- Collate selected outcomes in the school hall.
- Moderate within the staff body, from least to most capable writing outcomes.
- In the first instance, link to level descriptors to establish current (years 6&2) or prior expectation.
- Reflect on the requirements of the new progress descriptors and adjust (up) accordingly.
It is essential for a teacher and the learner to understand what they are capable of doing. This capability measure is the start point for independence, as known capabilities can become non-negotiable and part of on-going expectation. Sometimes capability becomes apparent in tasks that demand the use and application of presumed knowledge and skills. This is an important development, as assumption of knowledge and skill can lead to a series of lessons continuing, but leaving learners behind, by default.
Some will hate a reference to Kolb, but I find the dynamics useful as a dynamic guide. In itself, the structure below can give a generic structure to decisions made about learning and the child’s approach to the activity.
Tasking for learning has been a perennial issue. Do you go for whole class tasking with implied whole class expectation? Do you seek to differentiate across different groups? Do you see setting or streaming as pre-defining differentiation? Do you look to personalise challenge to each child?
I think it is possible to argue that there is no one way that will guarantee that you will ensure that every child is appropriately challenged from the start of the lesson. However, I do think it is possible to consider, based on current understanding of the learners, what will be the next area for learning and to set tasks that challenge appropriately above the current known position. If, using “old vernacular” you know your children are 2c, ask for 2c, then the children will be likely to achieve 2c. If you challenge above, with aspects of 3-ness, then you may well see the fruits of the expectation.
Articulating expectation is fraught with difficulties. I dislike the all, most, some approach with a vengeance, based on the thinking that if “some might” achieve and they are known, it is to me the bottom line expectation, for that group and therefore denotes the start point for learning. Being specific in articulating expectation, to me, is preferable. I developed aspects of this discussion in other posts, however, I do think that personalised targeting is an essential aspect of good learning dialogue, and that the use of “at least” can define more clearly the bottom line expectation than “all will”.
More independence does demand a shift in classroom organisation though, as resources may be sought to need and that may not be capable of determination until the activities start, so adequate resource needs to be made available, together with access and return routines.
Something to think about, talk about and perhaps write about or record. Bringing experience into learning.
Process and Product + evaluation = Quality Assurance.
The two statements above could be applied to many school approaches, where they have taken the decision to be brave in what they offer their children in the way of an exploratory, engaging, exciting curriculum. During the past eight years, I have visited both Primary and Secondary schools, prepared to go beyond a very utilitarian model and to establish a framework within which teaching and learning can be quality assured, based on the development of a coherent curriculum, with defined building blocks, which, when put together, form a strong basis form which children can be challenged to make the best of what is available to them.
One school whose record is now the subject of an insightful book, is The Wroxall Primary, run by Dame Alison Peacock. In her book, Creating Learning Without Limits, she describes the school journey from Special Measures to Outstanding, by adopting the experience based approach outlined above. When I visited the school in the autumn term 2014, I was struck by the similarities with my own school from 1990 onwards, where I established an extensive experience-based framework, a broad, balance and relevant curriculum, within which we ensured that English and Maths had centrality, but within contexts that enabled the use and application of skills and knowledge learned in the more formal lessons.
Up to standard? Primary Performance Descriptors; will Secondaries accept outcomes, more than levels?
When NC levels were discarded, we were told that this was because parents didn’t understand them, that they were not sufficiently rigorous, nor were they fit for purpose with the new National Curriculum. Secondary schools largely preferred to retest children on entry into year 7 to provide their baseline for progress within their own establishment.
They have not been formally replaced, but, with the advent of end of Key Stage Performance Descriptors, there is the potential to infer levelness requirements and the proposed labels attached will mean that while a large number are up to national standard, there will be a significant minority not at the national standard.
Schools may begin to determine whether children are on track to meet the national standard, so may well begin to track in that format and report to parents accordingly. So a child who would formerly have been deemed to have a special educational need may well now have a label of not up to standard.
I would also predict that Secondaries will continue to retest children, in part because they will still want to have their own baseline on entry, but will not want to explore the complexities of multiple assessment systems that might be in place in a range of feeder schools.
Investigate to refine?
I’ve argued for an engaging, broad curriculum, within which children can learn and learn how to become learners. I’ve also argued that it is possible to begin to fine tune tasking and expectation. Despite best efforts, there may be children for whom learning remains something of a mystery and for the teacher, the need to deal with their “enigmatic” problems becomes, in itself a problem.
The moderation exercise described earlier can give some clues to the achievement levels of the learners, so, if a child’s performance is significantly low, establishing the baseline is important, if progress is to be effected. It may mean the teacher in, say, year 5, talking with a teacher in year 2 to understand the needs of the child and to develop appropriate resources and challenges. Equally, the school SENCo might be needed, if there are concerns that the child might be exhibiting needs that are significantly challenging.
Teachers, in the situation of considering that a child has special educational needs would be advised to pay very close attention to the evident needs and to track tasking, support, outcomes and interventions so that they can have an informed discussion with appropriate colleagues.
This is the sharp end of assessment, when the need may well be to adopt a forensic enquiry to fine tune descriptors which may well then need to be discussed with external experts.
You are worried that a child has SEN, or has a “problem with” Reading/maths…
Please see the following blogs
- TIC TAC TOE,
- SEN cribsheet
High awareness, high surveillance and rapid and purposeful intervention.