Reclaiming assessment in your classroom

Written by: Suzanne O’Farrell | Published:
Image: MA Education

The move to scrap national curriculum levels has given schools back control of assessment. Suzanne O’Farrell advises on creating new assessment systems that are less about measuring and data and more about maximising pupil progress

What is the purpose of testing? Is it to generate an array of metrics to measure the performance of schools, subjects and individual pupils? Or is it an essential part of normal everyday classroom practice used as part of the learning process?

Assessment serves both purposes. However, there has arguably been far more emphasis on testing as a means of generating metrics in recent years than there has been on its role as a tool for learning.

It is an issue which is particularly relevant now because of the decision to scrap national curriculum levels. The unintended consequence of that system was that while we focused on the numbers, this created a misleading impression of pupils’ learning journey.

While life after levels presents a new set of challenges in terms of how to track pupil progress, it does free us from the mindset that assessment is mainly about measurement. It allows us to rethink assessment in the classroom so that we use it to fully understand where the gaps in learning are and close those gaps.

It is, therefore, a good time for the profession to step forward and reclaim and redefine assessment in order to maximise pupils’ progress in the classroom.

We need to move away from a testing regime where data is constantly recorded and where pupils are constantly judged. Instead, we need to prioritise rich, formative assessments, enabling us to capture what students can and cannot do, get feedback on the impact of our teaching strategies, and give personalised, individual feedback to our pupils.

Showing or telling a pupil what they need to do to improve is far more powerful and beneficial than assigning them a grade or label.

As the final report of the Commission on Assessment without Levels stated: “Formative assessment is intended to identify learning needs and provide information for teachers and pupils about where pupils are going, how close to it they are and what they need to do to get there. There is no intrinsic value in recording formative assessment; what matters is that it is acted on.”

The techniques we can use are familiar. They include high-quality questioning, peer and self-assessment, quick-fire tests, multiple-choice activities and frequent diagnostic testing so we know what pupils have learnt.

Low-stakes assessments are an important way of helping pupils to recall and remember their learning. As we are preparing pupils for a world of linear exams, we need to design a curriculum and plan for sustained learning.

This means repeatedly testing pupils’ recall and retrieval of core knowledge and spacing out these tests. Roediger and Karpicke’s research paper, entitled Test Enhanced Learning (2006), states that: “Taking a memory test not only assesses what one knows, but also enhances later retention, a phenomenon known as the testing effect.”

So, frequent testing is good teaching, supports longer-term retention and improves our memory and this is something that is particularly important in the context of the new, reformed GCSEs.

Classroom techniques which help to embed knowledge and test pupils’ ability to recall and retrieve information have never been more important.

What should we be assessing?

This is an important question because we cannot test everything. Teachers need to be selective, making sure that assessment is focused on the key knowledge and thinking or core concepts: what do your pupils really need to be expert in and what do they need to master in terms of knowledge and skills to be successful?

It is depth and mastery of key knowledge which are all important. We need to avoid falling into the trap of testing what is easy to assess and make sure we assess what the pupils really need to master in order to do well at GCSE.

What we are assessing is our pupils’ understanding of the key milestones in the curriculum so that we have good knowledge of what they have grasped or areas where they may need further support.

Effectively measuring pupil progress

We can assess the extent to which pupils have understood the core concepts of the curriculum, but this might not be easily translated into a particular number. Progress may well mean knowing something in greater depth, having a secure understanding of a core concept, being able to recall key knowledge or skills quickly and transfer them to other contexts or topics.

The problem with numerical systems is they suggest linear progress should be made. Progress is much more complex than that. Can we really measure learning every six weeks?

We can describe pupil progress but not necessarily quantify it. We can be confident, through our classroom assessments, about how well students have understood the core knowledge and we can monitor this and act on the information it gives us.

This may not mean creating artificial steps but simply monitoring through varied assessments of core concepts whether pupils are on course to meet expectations for the end of the key stage.

Schools need to be clear about the purposes of assessment. When designing an assessment system, we need to ask ourselves what information we need to gather.

Why do we need it and what are we going to do with it? We want an assessment system that tells us what pupils have attained, how well they are progressing and what they need to do to improve.

Ofsted will want to know how assessment is being used to support pupils’ progress. Inspectors are interested in how you have developed your curriculum and aligned your assessment. They will look at whether schools have identified the key milestones and big ideas in each subject, how schools know the extent to which pupils have grasped these big ideas and what interventions and challenge they are implementing to support pupils.

Ultimately, they are looking at two key aspects – the impact of assessment and whether the school’s assessment policy is being applied consistently by teachers.

In conclusion, it is important to recognise that the use of assessment as part of the learning process is nothing new and is employed to good effect in many classrooms already. The problem has been that it has too often had to play second fiddle to high-stakes summative testing.

Life after levels empowers us to shift the balance in the other direction.

  • Suzanne O’Farrell is a curriculum and assessment specialist with the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

  • Commission on Assessment Without Levels: Final report, Department for Education, September 2015:
  • The Association of School and College Leaders is running courses about assessment processes, both internal and external, in London on September 28, 2016, Birmingham on January 26, 2017, and Leeds on May 16, 2017. For details, visit


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