Assessment: How could we or should we?

Okay, so I was in a very interesting meeting today (see my forthcoming post on meetings, btw), and the discussion de-railed from admin items (who’s doing what for the next month or so), to the role of assessment in the new curriculum, and in modifications to the existing assessments in the KS3 curriculum.

At the moment, we have a pretty standard assessment system for KS3 – the students study a bit, take an assessment to show they’ve done something or learned something and not just been gazing out of the window; we mark it and return it; students go through the motions of writing their target somewhere; teacher and student have a conversation if they’ve done well or not so well, and then the merry-go-round starts again.

On the same day, I had a conversation with one of my tutees who had decided to eat a chocolate bar ‘defiantly’ (however one would do such a thing!) and ‘throw a little piece of wood across [a] classroom’. Now, the reason I mention this is because the doctrine behind the assessment approach above is something along the lines of, ‘allowing students to be more reflective and independent in identifying and acting on removing barriers to progress’. In short, if you know what you’re doing well and not doing well, then you can do better by improving in the areas you’re not doing well.

Except, if I’m a Year 8 (12 or 13 year-old) student, whose day involves trying to eat a chocolate bar ‘defiantly’ and ‘throw a little piece of wood’, I probably don’t actually care that much about the process of cognitive development. I care about the grades, and the numbers, and that I’m getting better, but I don’t care that much and – this is the killer blow – if I don’t do as well in an assessment as I’d hoped, I don’t have a method for improving because 1) I’m in Year 8 and 2) I don’t care that much right now because I’m either eating chocolate defiantly or throwing a little piece of wood.

So, does the process of reflective assessment and progress actually work? It certainly works for some students – I’ve had great success with very detailed matrices of skills and self-evaluation grids; but I’ve also had massive failure with these as the language  – particularly as you extend further up the school – becomes more complex and excludes many pupils. At best, I realise, the reflective assessment process works in ‘mopping up’ a piece of work – to sign something off and for the teacher to say, ‘well done, good work, you now know all there is on that topic or in that area, so we’re done’. Or, even worse, ‘bad luck, despite the fact you’ve worked really, really hard and I acknowledge that, this subject just isn’t your thing. Oh, well, chin up, just four more years (and please stop eating chocolate defiantly in my class)’.

The problem with this model of assessment is, as far as I can tell, twofold:

1) It’s made by adults for adults

2) It’s designed as a ‘bolt-on’ to measuring progress

Let’s look at those in turn.

It’s made by adults for adults

It’s a well-known concept (I discovered it in the book, Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, by Matthew Syed, but it’s original source is elsewhere) that suggests (although now questioned) that 10 000 hours of deliberate practice will help a person attain mastery. This pretty much equates to 3 hours a day for 10 years.

The key term within this process is ‘deliberate practice’ – i.e., completing a task or exercise designed to improve your skills in a specific area. Then, when you’ve completed the task, you (or your coach) evaluates your success and provides you with another task to stretch and challenge your performance. However, 10 000 hours of just hanging around won’t hack it – it has to be purposeful.

So, if we take the example of a gymnast or a musician, say. They could be – from a very early age – made to do their stretches, or helped by others, or made to complete their scales over and over and over. A mathematician can be made to do sums until they complete them all and have practised the rule enough to understand it. A young child can be made to practise cursive writing or repeating spellings until they are correct. It seems to work intuitively and – if we think back to our own childhood skills – my experience suggests that all that reading as a child has paid off as I’m now highly literate and a teacher and have a degree and responsibility and so on.

When we apply this to the reflective assessment process, it also appears to make sense. The teacher is the ‘coach’, and the student is the – er – student, and I provide tasks that allow for ‘deliberate practice’ and then the written feedback allows that student a way of improving, together with a grade to show how far they are along the path towards mastery.


…as an adult I know that this works because I reflect on my attainment towards a certain goal, suck it up if I’ve got further to go, generate a master-plan and off I toddle on my path to mastery. I also care deeply about my goal because, if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be wasting my time doing it – and I’m allowed the freedom as an adult to reject -without argument or objection – tasks that I don’t fancy.

…as a school-age student, I find it easy to reflect – or to be guided – to work on those projects that I enjoy. Generally, although not always, these will be the subjects that appeal to me – for whatever reason. For those subjects that I don’t do so well in, or that I don’t enjoy, being asked to reflect on my achievement and ‘work harder’ (taking on a deliberate practice task that is always going to be a challenge) is not going to make me want to do so. In fact, it will be quite the opposite because I don’t have the inclination – and why should I? Adults can pick and choose what they do in a way that students can’t.

To put it another way – if you’ve ‘never been able to do’ Mathematics, then go and sit through four years of Mathematics classes; if you’ve ‘never been able to do’ spelling, then write a book and submit it to a publisher; if you’ve ‘never been a good runner’, go and run a marathon. You wouldn’t: who would – and if you would, you’d be doing it because you now value your growth above your grading and understand that improvement is more important to your quality of life than any measure.

It’s designed as a ‘bolt-on’ to measuring progress

Let’s be honest, if any of us were given a magic bullet with which we could ensure we would never be measured and compared to others again, we would use it. Wouldn’t it be amazing – no idea if a lesson was ‘good’ or ‘outstanding (apart from our own professional judgement); no idea of our class’ VA against FFT(GM) and FFT(GA); no idea of Average Points Score or if our class was doing better or worse than Mr or Mrs Smith’s class.

But, as we all know, even in the much-lauded Scandinavian systems, at some point there is a big, harsh, nasty examiner that stamps a student’s work. Now, it makes absolute sense to ensure you don’t get into trouble by having a rough goal to aim at – if I know that a bright pupil is likely to get an A grade or better, then I know roughly what I’m expecting of them at different points in the curriculum, so I set little targets: ‘at the end of Year 10, I want Student X to be at a B grade, because experience shows me I can get them one grade’s progress in the final year’. It also means I’m not letting a student be lazy and rest on their laurels and under-achieve, as we all need coaxing sometimes, and it also means I can have an idea when they’re pretty close to ‘maxing out’ and are trying their very best and have learned from the lessons and from our combined hard work, but now need ‘tweaking’ to allow them to be ready for the next stage in their life.

It also makes absolute sense that the institution in which we work knows how each pupil is doing against this ‘benchmark’ because some students might be under-performing across the board, so the school or college can give them a ‘gee-up’; or they might be doing superbly across the board, so the school or college can give them a pat on the back. Somewhere along the line, though, the government, the institutions and even we, as teachers, have lost sight of the ‘gee-up’ and ‘pat on the back’ part and its become about dissecting performance. Why are Pupil X’s controlled assessments a C, but they’ve been predicted an A? (‘Because they do really well in exams’); Why has Pupil Y got a 4 for this, but a 7 for that? (‘Because they’re better – a lot better – at reading than writing’).

The use of summative assessment as a progress measure has been hi-jacked as a performance measure. 

If we use an analogy from sport, when a sprinter runs sub-10s for 100m, everyone says how amazing they are. When they run again, and don’t go below 10s, what happens? It’s analysed and explained away – there is no doubt that that sprinter will run below 10s again – but it’s put down to ‘weather’ or ‘the track’ or ‘nutrition’. In education, at this point and time now? There are only two people can be to blame: the student, or the teacher. Teachers are too well-educated and too good at playing the system to take the blame, so it’s the student’s fault. And the student, being younger and more pliant, and used to not getting the great grades that others in the class get, agrees and implicitly absolves the adult of any blame.

In truth, though, it’s not about blame. Just like our sprinter above, the teacher has done the best that they could at that time with the tools available to them; the student has done the best that they could at that time with the tools available to them. Diagnostic and reflective marking is there to explain it away. It is an excuse that suits both parties.

Which brings us back to the assessment issue…

So, I was in this meeting and thinking about the functions of assessment. We needed to design a policy that was ‘rigorous’ (rather than those flaccid ones we normally make!) and ‘robust’ (ditto), but that also serves us, rather than the needs of some spreadsheet somewhere. We didn’t want it to be about accountability (who’s to blame, tell me why, why, why) and we didn’t want it to be data heavy (even in the most extreme examples, summative scores go up and down and up and down) and present a skewed picture.

As a student who eats chocolate defiantly, all you want to know is ‘am I better or worse than last time’ and ‘should I develop some interest, what do I need to do to get better’. Now, I could still give grades and numbers, but that then compares your performance to that of others in the class because everyone wants to know how they compare, and keeps building pressure to stay in the elevated seat or beats you further back down. However, as a teacher, I have the capacity to identify if the performance is better or worse than last time and – most importantly – I can also tell you why (because I’ve already paid my dues and my 10000 hours). I can also tell you a little trick to be better next time (if you wish to pay attention), and something not to do (if you wish to pay attention). If I need to, I can even record a cheeky number somewhere (like a markbook) – together with my comment – so I can quickly get a sense of where you are now in relation to where you need to be in the coming years. I can pass this information on to colleagues, too. And, if you want it, I can give you the number, but with the caveat that performance in assessments can go down as well as up and this is just one step on a long journey that will never really finish until the day you pop your clogs.

As a teacher, I can use the numbers and grades in my markbook as a ‘shorthand’ for performance at particular times; as a parent, I look to see if the number’s gone up or remained static when the termly report comes home (it will never go backwards – once I’ve run sub 10s, I can always do so); as an institution I check that there’s some progress measure (better or worse than last time) and an analysis and explanation for the number or grade, trusting in the teacher’s expert professional judgement.

So, the assessment policy needs to:

  • Provide progress data for the institution, parents, colleagues and students if asked for (summative assessments will still take place, just when it best suits the performance of the pupil)
  • Focus on dynamic performance (improvement, growth and betterment), rather than static measures
  • Identify if progress has been made (a simple comment – ‘this is an improvement on…’; ‘your last piece was stronger…’)
  • identify where progress was made or not made (‘…this is because…’)
  • Provide a target (the ‘trick’ to improve from the expert teacher – something to deliberately practise independently if you wish, but certainly next time we do something like this skill again)
  • Allow opportunities for teachers, departments or institutions to identify exceptional or weak progress against the expectations and provide the necessary reward (pat on the back) or support (gee up)

The assessment policy does not need to:

  • Provide a summative grade or level for each assessment to each pupil, unless requested by the pupil
  • Plaster ‘my current grade is…’ and ‘my target grade is…’ on the fronts of books, walls, charts or any other place designed to ‘enlighten’ a student of their current attainment against a point score in a subject (at best, these embarrass; at worst, they demean and shame)
  • Justify itself in terms of being able to compare one teacher’s class performance against others
  • Justify itself in terms of ‘evidence for OFSTED of pupils’ awareness of expectations’
  • Use wording from the assessment criteria – unless students can access this and understand it
  • Use self-evaluation against complex matrices – unless students can access this and understand it

So, that’s it at the moment. Let me know your thought and if this is what you do or don’t do – it’s only slight changes, but a change in ethos and, as we know, those are the hardest to make.


3 thoughts on “Assessment: How could we or should we?

  1. Throughout history learners have gained mastery through the apprentice method of learning. Schools, on the other hand are systems for mass instruction. Much time is spent on teaching children how to learn by this method and so there is less time to actually pass on the knowledge or skill. Time should be freed up for teachers to stay interested in their subject and get great lessons ready. Any time left should be spent analysing what the majority of the class need. Its a mass production system. The tension is when we are expected to act as though its an apprentice style system.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed – this is something referred to in ‘The Art of Work’ by Jeff Goins. It’s devastating that students are expected to fit into a ‘one-size-fits-all’.

      I agree – we aren’t masters and apprentices, but what’s the alternative? Is this the best of a bad system?


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