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#LearningFirst – Reasons to be Optimistic About Assessment

Below is the contents of the first part of a presentation I intend to give at the #LearningFirst Conference in Sheffield on the 5th November 2016.  In talking about Principled Assessment in Practice and why we should be optimistic, I want to focus on the central assessment concept of validity from three different perspectives.  If we are going to move assessment forward in our schools we must understand the central concept of validation; “the process of establishing what conclusions are warranted and which are not” from the evidence we have (Wiliam, 2014).

Acknowledgement: William, D (2014)

Acknowledgement: William, D (2014)

Take for example the construct of “high quality teaching”.  For well over a decade inspectors and school leaders have drawn substantial, unwarranted conclusions from the flimsiest of evidence.  Observing twenty minutes or one hour of a lesson and then making conclusions on the quality of teaching, and by implication the quality of the teacher, now seems bonkers to many of us who have done it hundreds of times.  The latest red herring is the book review; remember this only tells you so muchThe elusive search for a single, simple, quick assessment indicator of the quality of teaching will remain just that; elusive, since it doesn’t exist.  Great teaching is so much more complex.


Similar challenges are faced when holding schools accountable for the quality of education provided.  In helping develop the Headteachers’ Roundtable Alternative Green Paper, Schools that Enable All to Thrive and Flourish, we called for an end to the use of attainment outcomes.  The most valid conclusion which may be drawn from attainment outcomes relates more to a school’s intake than its effectiveness.  Our call for a three year contextual valid added measure would be a major step forward, if adopted.  The new Progress 8 measure makes this a possibility for secondary schools but we are years away from developing a reliable and valid measure for primary schools.  However, even if we can move towards a multi-year progress measure many would argue that this gives a very limited view of what a good school should be.  As John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York (2016) states education is about both educare and educere.  We are much better at assessing the first rather than the latter.


Both the process of lesson observations and inspection of schools fail to provide valid conclusions about good teaching or effective education, respectively, as the assessments are too small to measure the actual construct.  In technical language, they suffer from construct under representation.

The great possibility; the reason to be cheerful about Principle Assessment in Practice is we become empowered to ask better questions and better understand the limitations of the answers.  This is all part of developing a deep knowledge and understanding of assessment.   We can then start exploring and understanding the world of trade-offs.  Using the example above, it is possible to look at other important outcomes of education that we would want to see in a good school; we’d need to agree what they are, determine suitable metrics and then provide the time and funding to enable it to happen.  The question then is whether this would be the best use of the time and money available in improving schools?  What are the alternatives?  Should we pursue these alternatives in preference?  

We can take this thinking into the classroom.  It is part of becoming an evidence based profession.  Part II – Reasons to be Optimistic About Principled Classroom Assessments #LearningFirst


Wiliam, D. (2014) Redesigning Schools – 8: Principled Assessment Design, London, UK; SSAT

Both of the references below are quoted in my new book Liminal Leadership:

Coe, R. (2016) SSAT meets Professor Rob Coe: Part 1 – Proper research is what identifies great teaching. Available: https://www.ssatuk.co.uk/ssat-meets-rob-coe-1/  Last accessed 22nd May 2016

Archbishop of York (2016) Nurturing the heart, mind and soul: the spiritual context of education. In: Chambers, P. Schools for Human Flourishing. London: SSAT. 84-90.


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