One single word can cause a significant amount of controversy. Assessment has been a bread and butter notion ever since education began, with simple judgements at one end, eg y is better than x, through to the fine tuning of marking schemes to provide specific grades in an exam across a large cohort. Assessment has been used to identify personal capability, but also to rank order a group. To that end, “assessment” can seem to serve too many masters. The situation can be exacerbated by rhetoric implying “secondary school readiness” or scales of 1-10 (deciles).
While for some, assessment will mean an examination, for others it will involve fine judgements.
A teacher stating that “x cannot read” can appear correct if x is compared with y who is off the scale, but the statement might mask the fact that x can read up to a specific level, but needs to make rapid progress in order to catch up. In this scenario, I would expect an in-house expert to be able to describe x’s current skill set and to identify the necessary steps to be taken to address the issue. If not, the advice of an attached specialist teacher or educational psychologist should be sought.
Similarly a child spelling “girl” as “gurl” might be marked wrong by one teacher, while another might look at the attempt and identify the correct first and last letters, with the confusion or teaching point in the centre of the word.
An educational psychologist assessment of a child is likely to be very detailed in specific areas to diagnose the specific needs of an individual child.
Two children assessed at the same level on the basis of a test score may have significantly different needs when it comes to describing their personal learning targets.
The quality of in-lesson assessment depends on the teacher understanding and ability across a wide range of embedded skills. Teaching is a complex craft as well as being scientific in approach. Strategic and diagnostic thinking about the learning needs of the children are as important as specific subject knowledge.
Planning- Developing plans over time which embed the contexts and the direction of travel, but also clarity in challenge and learner expectations which will prompt appropriate and timely intervention. The former is relatively easy, learning chunked end to end, while the latter embeds the three dimensional aspects of learning, with potentially thirty different needs to be addressed; secondary teachers might have 200+ students to see in a week. Differentiation by expectation or Assessment for Learning.
Classroom practice- Understanding the children in the class will ensure adaptation of activity expectation, language use, explanation, exploration of ideas, questioning, interactions, interventions and oral and written feedback. Differentiation by task adaptation or Assessment for Learning.
Review- evaluation based on expectation. If the children exceeded expectation, there is evidence for more rapid movement, if on line, to continue with plans, but if not reaching expectations, there will be a need to consider remedying the situation for security before further forward movement. This can be a scenario within a class lesson, so requiring a different approach to the beginning of the next lesson. Differentiation by outcome or Assessment of Learning.
Decisions can sometimes be adjusted through moderation activities, where judgements are compared with others and a consensus reached, as a form of quality assurance.
Record- Teachers keep detailed records of the outcomes of learning, from the personal portfolios of the earl years to complex mark sheets. They should support decision making by teachers.
Formative or ongoing daily judgements are supported by having a frame of reference against which to make the judgements. Making these expectations national ensures that consistent judgements are made in each school, avoiding the issue of being “good for this school”, but in comparison achieving poorly against comparative peers.
Levels, level descriptors and derivatives like Assessing Pupil Progress (APP) have been the benchmarks over the past twenty six years. That they became cumbersome and bureaucratic in use in some schools cannot be denied. However, they did serve a purpose in embedding a national expectation to which schools aspired and which improved learning for children, often by comparison with exemplars from other schools. Arbitrary decisions to remove these might imply permission to do something else, but, in the absence of a tried and tested alternative, teachers and authorities have been left either clinging to the levels lifeboat, or casting adrift and seeing where the tides take them.
Describing progress in a subject is an essential element in assessing and describing learner progress. Level descriptors to a large extent did this, in my opinion and experience within schools. As a result, any alternative scheme will have to describe subject progress. If that progress is then graded into difficulty, there will be a system similar to levels. The new National Curriculum, to my mind, embeds the levelness expectations within year group expectations. So, instead of working at a particular level with clear criteria, a child might be described as working at year z level, but presumably only if they are assessed as achieving 100% of what is described in the year specification? However, the complication will be describing children not achieving at that level; will we talk of proportions eg 65% at year 4 level, as within, above or below year expectations? Will we see children, eg in a year 4 class, some working at year2, some at year 3, some at 4 and others at 5 or 6? Some will say that that is what currently happens, with a wide range of level outcomes in a mixed ability class. In Maths and English this may be possible, but other curricular areas in the new NC are quite specific to the year group.
An “assessment mind-set” supports the fine tuning of expectation, through differential challenge in tasks, the quality of teacher-child interaction, diagnosis, questioning, explanation, adaptation to need, then judgement based on the outcomes and subsequent planning for learning.
Having come this far over the past twenty six years and having created quite sophisticated assessment tools, it seems perverse to lose skills which fine tune learning and teaching and possibly to return to a more activity-led approach, where assessment might be completion of tasks, rather than the quality of learning.
It’s a matter of judgement.