Assessment is complicated. It is always going to be complicated, and we were foolish if ever we thought that it could be simplified to a 1-10 rising scale. Or if we think it can be solved by a private organisation producing a glossy folder (which they inevitably will at some cost!)
As I’ve covered previously, half of the issues with our current assessment system come from the over-use of National Curriculum levels. Whenever I go back to look at the 1999 NC levels it seems quite clear to me that they’re adequate (if, admittedly, not brilliant) for what they were originally intended: to differentiate broad bands of achievement after several years of study. The problems arose when we began – quite rightly – to look for more subtle and nuanced approaches (if nuance is a word we can use to describe the level of subtlety below broad-strokes-after-4-years!)
I have gone on record saying that I didn’t think that levels were all that bad. Let me also go on record to say that I think APP was a disaster. But one with the best of intentions I’m sure. Actually, I found that familiarising myself with the criteria for Reading actually improved my teaching, but highlighting the wretched forms probably undid half of that by taking up so much of my time. The intention got lost among the administration, as is so often the way.
So what solution?
Most of us seem quite happy now with the notion that planning and assessment should be linked. And most of us are familiar with the structure of long-, medium- and short-term planning. And yet, we seemed not to have married these two notions quite as well as I think we need to.
Whole School Overview
Most schools will have – in some form or another – a curriculum map which outlines the content of the curriculum in the broadest of strokes (If you haven’t, I shamelessly recommend my new curriculum jigsaws). It gives an outline of expectations that helps everyone to know where they fit in the big picture. It’s also likely to be largely based on the National Curriculum for the relevant Key Stage. This is also where the old NC levels came in. They looked at the broad strokes in very little detail, but gave everyone an idea of where they were going.
Naturally the new end-of-key-stage assessments (when they come) will form part of this, and in a way this will require some form of tracking en route. Sadly, until we know a little more detail of what will be assessed and how, schools are going to struggle to be clear about this level. Time will tell. But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done in the meantime to make assessment useful in schools.
As a Year Leader, I have a responsibility for the curriculum I provide for the students in my year group. That means I need to have some idea of where I want them to be by the end of the year. In the past for many of us the answer to that would have been “2 sub-levels higher than they were last year!” Not a helpful direction.
Rather, I’d like to have an idea of what I’d want from, say, a Year 5 child who is on track to achieve well in the future. This is a discussion to be had in my team, in my locality, and more widely. It can be guided by the new NC content, and in my opinion needs to be distilled to some key outcomes. @emmaannhardy reminded me of the Key Objectives from the old numeracy strategy which I considered to be ‘not unreasonable’. If we can agree – at whatever level is appropriate – what we want from our children by the end of each year, then we can have a meaningful tool with which to review progress and share our understanding of it with students and parents. True, some students will fall short of these, and some will exceed: teachers can make adjustments locally to suit needs as they always have. But we shouldn’t shy away from saying that we expect to be able to teach the vast majority of students to reach an expected threshold. The task of outlining those key thresholds may seem initially easier for maths (and it probably is), but frankly if we can’t break down the requirements of English to make them meaningful, then what hope have our students?
It is this “long-term” view that I think ought to lead our discussions at school- and wider levels. Leadership teams should be interested in how year teams are working towards those key objectives; parents should see progress towards them marked at parents evenings and in reports; locality groups could use them for the basis of moderation and shared discussions. But, of course, this too is not clear enough for the students we teach to know how to make clear progress.
I’m going off “topics” as the building block of the curriculum. In some circumstances the ‘topic’ can be the driver rather than the vehicle for learning, and where that is the case, we need to move away from it. But when it comes to medium-term planning, our assessment intentions should guide us. In my ‘brave new world’ of assessment, just as we plan units of work to fit into our “big picture”, so should we plan our intentions and assessments. That’s not to say “teach to the test”, but rather to design the ‘test’ to test what we intend to teach; and then teach it!
I have written previously about how I intend to use a mastery approach for more than just maths teaching this year. I know what outcomes I want over the year, so why not be explicit about that in my planning and teaching? If we can agree – at whatever level – on the key outcomes for our year groups, then equally we can share this focus with children. And importantly, we can begin to break down the steps for them. If, for example, my key objective for a half-term is to use varied sentence lengths, then during a scheme of work I need to find opportunities to make that an explicit objective linked to different purposes, genres and uses. I should be able to see progress within that period towards the over-arching outcome, with some small steps en route. Perhaps students become familiar with use of shorter sentences for some effects, but are less able to develop longer ones? That can inform my short-term planning on the way to achieving the medium-term objectives.
This medium-term assessment is what I think ought to guide target-setting at the child level. If, as in the case above, a child is less secure with longer sentences, then a suitable target can be devised within the period that allows them to make progress in that area, while it is still being covered in the curriculum. (That should get us around the nonsense of children being given targets at the end of a unit on shape & space, when they won’t come to that content again for another 3 months!)
Just as written daily lesson plans should be the exception rather than the rule, so daily assessment recording should be purposeful and informal, rather than directed and centrally recorded. Any good teacher will use his/her assessments in lessons, and from written work, to help guide future teaching. In the framework of clear medium- and long-term objectives, that becomes clearer. During a half-term’s teaching, the assessment of work can focus more closely on those aspects explicitly being taught and assessed. Of course, the other aspects will be covered, but Rome was not built in a day! We can build a coherent network of aims for students that clearly shows them what we’re aiming for over the year, over the half-term, and then explicitly for them in the coming lessons to help them to reach those longer-term goals.
This period should be led by the teacher, and focus mainly on the relationship between teacher and students. Much of the feedback in the short-term will not be explicit to the child, but clear to the teacher in a way that allows him/her to adapt planning and teaching to the needs of the students in the room.
Hopefully, if we can get these various strands of assessment right, then we can avoid the unwieldy paperwork of APP, the vagueness of National Curriculum levels, the nonsense of arbitrary sub-levels, and some of the worst vagaries of differentiation. But it needs a coherent approach at the school level. Each school must be clear about how it intends to make the progress towards the short-, medium- and long-term goals, and must be able to clearly demonstrate that it monitors that progress.
Of course, inevitably, Ofsted and others will expect to see some data-driven measures about progress towards whatever outcomes are determined to be expected at the end of the key stage, but within that framework it should be for schools and professionals to decide the way forward. This is, after all, what Mr Gove keeps telling us should be happening. I say we take him at his word and make assessment work for us and our students, and let tracking do what it says, rather than driving everything else.