Assessment: ‘Have I made a difference yet?’

Written by: Greg Watson | Published:
Image: iStock

Effective assessment is evidence-based and can demonstrate impact and inform teacher development. Greg Watson looks at some of the basic principles

Accurate measurement can sometimes seem quite pedantic and nitpicking, admits Daisy Christodoulou, head of assessment at ARK Schools.

But she continues: “We know from other walks of life that accurate data can be transformative: improvements in measurement brought about by microscopes and stethoscopes in the 19th century led to improvements in healthcare itself, while improvements in the measurements SmartPhones can make have transformed many people’s lives.

“Spending time ensuring our educational measurements are smart can help us work out what really works in the classroom, and ensure that no pupils are left behind.”

Schools are increasingly turning to evidence-led practice and, in these cash-strapped times, it is important to know what has the most impact for the least investment. Good assessment is a critical tool for both these things. If you do it well, you can understand and act on students’ strengths and weaknesses and you can help them and their parents to understand these too.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) Teaching and Learning Toolkit is widely applauded for raising the profile of evidence-led practice. Yet, for some headteachers, “the idea that you turn to evidence is just not part of the culture”, according to the EEF’s Sir Kevan Collins in a recent article in The Economist (Premium grade: A pricey education policy looks like money well spent, March 2016, The Economist: http://econ.st/2dmIPHr).

Sir Kevan explains that a number of cheap, effective approaches, such as using older children to tutor younger ones, are still rarely used. Some 44 per cent of schools have spent part of the Pupil Premium sprucing up classrooms or the school environment, which has little impact on student performance. Nearly eight in 10 schools use the extra money to support activities that benefit all pupils, which makes sense only where there are many pupils on free school meals. So how do we square the circle?

Increasing data knowledge

The challenge here is for all schools to increase their knowledge of different kinds of assessment, and move confidence in data up a notch. Assessment can take many forms and it is a delicate art. Not least, what should be the balance between high-frequency fact-checking tests (which are inevitably of limited reliability) and the less frequent but more reliable assessments that relate student progress to national benchmarks?

Different assessments also have different uses. There are times when you want to understand progress and times when you want to find out why an approach is not working.

But ultimately, data is something teachers can meet around; a currency for professional exchange. It can provide the same frame of reference and it can also take the bias out of discussions. It should be pursued in the spirit of scientific enquiry to inform the on-going process of professional learning and development.

A whole-pupil view

Using a variety of assessments can help you create a rich, three-dimensional picture of your students. My philosophy is based on a “whole-pupil” approach which compares a student’s developed ability, their current attainment, and any barriers to learning they may have.

By using the three sets of data in tandem, you may be able to lift the lid on something you didn’t know before. You need more than one viewpoint; if you keep assessing the same maths topic but the results don’t improve, for example, you might just need to look at something else. Maths attainment is clearly linked in international research to confidence and engagement.

Phil Hart, headteacher at Westhoughton High School in Bolton, believes that it is essential to use this kind of data combination in order to build the richest profile of students. He explained: “The sooner you understand where a student is starting from, the sooner you can work out how best to support them. By comparing developed ability with attainment and looking for any barriers to learning, we have every base covered.”

Westhoughton wants to actively seek out those “hard to spot” students who develop a discrepancy between developed ability and academic performance so that the school can provide proactive and not reactive interventions for them.

Mr Hart added: “Youngsters’ attitudes to learning and school matter enormously. It’s important to understand what happens to a child’s self-esteem, confidence and work ethic, and what can be done to address problems in these areas when they are identified.”

He cites one boy whose life out of school is hard; his older siblings were excluded from school and have been in trouble with the police. The student is bright and philosophical, but data showed that his self-esteem was extremely low and he didn’t hold school in high regard.

He said: “Data identified his potential – and the potential barriers to achieving – before we’d had a chance to get to know him. I couldn’t say for sure his potential would have been recognised without these assessments.”

Giving teachers the right tools

Teachers need to be given the right tools to do this successfully. In my view, one of the great positives of the new Standard for Teachers’ Professional Development is the message that great teaching is underpinned by a combination of deep curriculum knowledge, rich assessment and on-going professional learning.

David Weston, the chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust and chair of the Department for Education Teachers’ Professional Development Expert Group – which created the new Standard – believes that knowledge in formative assessment needs to become a central part of all CPD.

In the most effective professional learning, he says, teachers are always checking “have I made a difference yet?” – how do you know if your professional learning is having an impact on your students’ learning and, more broadly, contributing to progress in your class, your school or your multi-academy trust?

The acid test on assessment is this: if you were asked today, could you talk about a student selected at random from your class and explain how your assessments are helping inform teaching for that child? This will involve a discussion of teacher judgements, assessment data, feedback, marking, parents’ evening, and so on. A thorough conversation will demonstrate that your system is working.

Assessment is a skill that needs to be learned. By increasing understanding of the different types and uses of assessment, you can make smart choices about the time and money that you put into assessment and what will give you the best return on investment.

Thankfully, one advantage of assessment is that you do not need much of it to uncover pupils falling behind or not using their full abilities. Assessment data can give you that “a-ha!” moment when the reason why a pupil is hiding their light under a bushel is finally revealed and you can watch as they begin to realise their true potential.

  • Greg Watson is the chief executive of GL Assessment.


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