Assessment is thinking; about children and progress in learning and, if they’re not progressing, or progressing more rapidly than expected, doing something about the needs.
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; or in Dylan Wiliam's words "the reflective, reactive teacher".
Make quality visible, so it can be discussed and evaluated openly and regularly.
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.
I’ve always enjoyed art, bringing to it a scientist’s eye, shaped in part by the purchase, at the age of eleven, of two second hand science books, Victorian in origin, one with plates of ferns, the other with plates showing “Common Objects of the Microscope”. If I went by the art teacher’s implied assessment in my first year at a Boy’s Grammar school, I’d say that I was a failure in art. His method of assessment was to line everyone up, holding up their pictures and move boys up or down the line until the final resting place was given a percentage mark, which we had to write on the back. I was usually towards one end of the line. I am sure it cut down on his marking, but did nothing for my self-esteem. We received no other feedback, so had no understanding of how we, as individuals, might improve. I thought I was useless at art, at twelve. This was a very poor 1960s form of comparative assessment.
In fact, as a teacher, I’d say that for the 16 years until 1987, all my marking, as a teacher was comparative, but on two levels, the first was each child, with assessment over time simply being comparison of work every few weeks to look at progress and what I could add to their challenge. The other layer being an awareness across the whole class; those who were doing “better” than others. Experience, across the whole Primary age range broadened and deepened this awareness, putting high and low achievement into context, but also demonstrating the stages that children passed through to achievement.
That the 1987 National Curriculum sought to capture this in detail, as level descriptors, allowed collective moderation through discussion across the whole Primary curriculum, guiding non-experts as well as supporting colleagues to enhance their expectations. This change added to teacher thinking.
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 explored the idea of system wide dialogue, with information, based on accepted judgement being passed from one level to another. Again, moderation, validation and triangulation would seem to support system improvement.
On my main blog, I have a number of posts on marking, looking to make it a realistic aspect of a teacher life, while ensuring that children can participate fully and utilise advice and feedback effectively.
Marking; keep it simple
Is marking moderation step 1
Back to marking
In “Marking; keep it simple”, the main premise is that the child targets should be on a fold out sheet that can be seen within a lesson, to guide teacher-child conversation, but also be a guide for marking later. It can incorporate non-negotiables, as they appear in earlier scripts.
In “Marking”, there is a discussion of marking as a dialogue between the teacher and the learner. I also question the place of homework where that generates marking load.
Homework can create additional marking need, but, if the activity is considered within the learning dynamics of the topic, does not necessarily need to do so.
Consider as home activity:-
- Draft from notes taken in a lesson, to be brought back as first draft, for editing in class.
- Summarise what has been learned into three key pieces of information. Boxed, it becomes a form of revision note.
- “Drawing and colouring” to save class time for discussion.
- Personal research which adds to the lesson.
- Reading a piece of text before the lesson.
None of the above needs detailed marking, as they are part of continuous effort.
As children mature as learners, they can begin to direct the teacher to areas for marking. If, say, adjectives have been the subject of learning, then the child can be asked to highlight the adjectives used, so they are easy to see.
In “is marking moderation step 1”, the teacher is acting as quality control, feeding back to the child where their work is ok and where there are areas for improvement. Teacher judgement is key to these stages.
Moderation stage 1; teacher child conversation.
Moderation stage 2; teacher-teacher conversation.
Moderation stage 3; school-area conversation.
Moderation stage 4; school-national outcomes conversation.
In “Back to Marking”, in addition to the above, I also suggest a number of key steps to consider.
- As an organisation, schools should set marking expectations that are clear, concise and achievable and have impact on learning.
- Plan mark loads over a known timescale, so that books are marked appropriately in timescales that enable feedback to be useful. If a whole week of devoted to “assessment activity” it is not surprising if workloads are heavy, especially as they usually back onto school holidays.
Learners should see themselves as active partners in work review. It should be done with and through, not always done to. Marking in a lesson is a very supportive strategy, especially for struggling learners, where immediacy of response is needed.
There are no easy solutions, as this area is often unique to the teacher and their interpretation of expectations. But it is worth significant consideration.
Assessment is normally based on clearly articulated or published criteria, with a judgement of whether the outcome demonstrates certain abilities, so that the assessor can say with some definition that “x can do…”. Some assessment situations also require a judgement of pass or not, with a pass at merit or distinction. These are bottom line capabilities, seen, for example in driving tests, music exams and Initial Teacher Education, each of which requires a level of competence in order to progress, with further guidance available.
Critique is what I think I do when I go to an art gallery or listen to music, usually starting from appreciation of what I like, through areas which make me less comfortable, to aspects that I don’t like. This is coupled with a rationale, so my critique is a descriptor, linked to personal insights. There has to be a “because”. As a reflective person, sometimes this is an insular activity, but, when in company, a shared reaction can become the stuff of dialogue, comparative and nuanced, and that’s the part that interests me in terms of classroom practice.
I think children and their teachers should engage in discussion of quality in work, in all subjects. With visualisers becoming a part of classroom practice, it is very easy to share outcomes and explore and diagnose aspects of the work, together, with children being enabled to explore the language and parameters of critique. Description, followed by speculation, enables the questioner to raise issues in the mind of the producer, to enable answers which might, in themselves, highlight the specific areas for improvement. I’d also expect classroom spaces to be awash with examples of quality work, on display, or in portfolios, which set the benchmark for expectation and reflection within the class. It is a holistic approach.
I am now beginning to view success criteria as surrogate mark schemes for a specific context. If they embed statements which clarify the steps that need to be taken in order to produce a piece of work of quality, they can be checked at the end to see if they have been followed.
However, on top of that, there needs to be the capacity to advise individuals about the quality within the finished work. These personalised targets, attached to the edge of the book, can summarise the qualities being sought from that learner adding to the potential for both critique and assessment. Assessment, in this scenario, becomes a “signing off” activity, with the critique proving a qualitative set of statements.
Learners can engage with success criteria and I have visited a number of schools that embed systems where learners have to highlight areas of their work which, in their opinion, demonstrate a specific success criterion or personal target, which focuses marking. Self-diagnosis of outcomes is an essential skill of editing, drafting and redrafting activities.
I think the simplicity for me is to value descriptive and evaluative, reflective discussion, which is capable of being modelled, guided and scaffolded by an engaged adult. By learning to talk in this way, children can do it between themselves and, in so doing, prepare the ground for self-improvement.
Improvement judgements should not be the sole province of a teacher. Improvement should be a partnership.