What is the right approach to student assessment?


As her students enter their final exams, our NQT diarist muses on the differing forms of assessment she has employed and whether these approaches have yielded the best results possible.

It is whole-school exam week. All the blood sweat and tears I have put into each pupil I have taught this year are about to be reduced to a Level – determined by their performance in one 50-minute exam slot. 

Exam grades are not my ultimate motivation for teaching, however it cannot be denied that an exam grade is the single tangible thing that a pupil will take away as a measure of how they performed in your subject this year, and every pupil, no matter how they attest to the contrary, wants to feel that they have achieved something.

This has led me to reflect in depth about the nature and purpose of assessment. The most obvious form of assessment used within our department is summative: every half-term pupils sit a test based on work covered and are assigned a level.

Pupils are always nervous about receiving their results in case they “fail” to meet their target grade. One pupil was happy recently because she met her target, but I overheard another girl ask her how she got a particular question right, to which she responded: “Don’t know, I just guessed!” This surprised me; are pupils just interested in achieving a “level” rather than developing understanding?

As well as creating what the Department for Education describes as the “tragedy that some pupils become more concerned with ‘what level they are’ than for the substance of what they know, can do and understand”, levelled assessment has also been criticised for its negative impact on pupils’ self-esteem.

A focus on “ability” as an internal, fixed quality can have a demotivating effect and reduce pupils’ expectations for their own achievement. Such students are more likely to feel they are “dumb” and helpless to improve their levels. This can be explained by psychological theories of self-efficacy; an individual’s belief that they can complete a task (see Bandura’s paper, Self-efficacy Mechanisms in Human Agency). Low self-efficacy leads to individuals developing a sense of “learned helplessness”, where they feel that exertions of effort will not lead to improvement, so they do not bother trying.

So what can I do to ensure my low-attaining pupils don’t fall into this trap? A delve into relevant literature, notably Inside the Black Box (Black and Wiliam), reveals a distinction between “assessment of learning” and “assessment for learning”.

Assessment of learning provides information for grading and accountability. Assessment for learning requires pupils to become active, self-aware learners.

Assessment of learning is a summative measure of learning that has taken place over a given period. Assessment for learning allows adaptation of future activities to meet the needs of the pupils; a formative approach.

Research shows that intelligent, sensitive formative assessment helps so-called low-attainers more than other pupils. To me, this suggests that it may be an individual’s ability to assess their own strengths and weaknesses that is the limiting factor in their achievement; so-called “low-attainers” may simply lack the skills to assess their own work and identify how to improve. 

So it is worth me investing time and effort into building pupils’ self-assessment skills. When my pupils receive their summative levels next week there will be successes and failures. My goal will be to ensure pupils who do not meet their target level do not feel defeated and helpless to improve, but to support them in identifying the topics they need to work on and how they can do it.

  • Our NQT diarist this year writes anonymously and is a teacher of maths from a south London secondary.



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