Breaking Useless Assessment Habits


Useless assessment data has always abounded in schools maybe in organisations generally.  Leaders get to make the final decision on what data is collected; time is finite, data purportedly for tracking and monitoring progress is generated whilst that of greater value to support teaching and promote learning is sidelined.

In visiting various schools this year, I accept not a huge sample, it’s clear that there is still a massive hangover from levels.  Leaders and managers have been so used to collecting aggregated data – grades and levels with various subdivisions – they have simply continued with the practice in various guises.

Photo Credit: Janneke Staaks via Flickr cc

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I’m shown spreadsheets or databases full of the new GCSE Maths or English numerical grades, sometimes with fine divisions like +/-/=.  If appropriate I will ask whether I can “challenge” their current data practices.  Suggesting that it is possibly data garbage – grade boundaries for the new Maths & English GCSEs won’t be decided for a month or two – I’m met with a shrug and a reason why someone needs it.  The school is often under particular scrutiny and the senior or middle leader are being pressurised to show progress, over very limited time periods, including the dark art of predicting the future.  It’s pointless, it’s meaningless, it’s a waste of time but it is still very prevalent.

Accountability is Driving Assessment

School leaders want to know whether pupils are making progress; it’s a reasonable question, “Have pupils in this class made one year’s progress (or hopefully more) for one year’s teaching?”  Their problem is that they have been used to a single grade, a number or a letter, to base any answer to the question on.  It’s debatable whether assessment practices have ever really answered this question; the spurious use of end of key stage levels, with various sub-divisions, to track progress is largely nonsense; an unacknowledged and possibly unknown nonsense but one all the same.  There is much I regret about systems I have put in place over the decades.

Discussions about a borderline C/D or nearly a level 4 were often based on unreliable data sets; it wasn’t so much that the data was useless but the conclusions being drawn were.

What If Teaching & Learning Drove Assessment Practices

Tipping the whole process on its head; not what data do I have but rather what conclusions would I like to make creates a new and interesting starting point.  Getting class room teachers to make the decisions about assessment systems rather than school leaders might also help.

Here are some simple questions a teacher may usefully want answers to; the data will help provide some useful pointers or signposts:

What have I taught that you still don’t know or can’t do?

Given I have taught a class a particular aspect of my subject it is sometimes crushing to realise how little pupils know or can actually remember during the assessment.  A lack of revision may be one of the problems but a lack of understanding can sit alongside it.  In too many class rooms the response is to enter the grade or level into the computer and move on.  Interestingly, in Year 6 or 11 I often see a more forensic question level analysis with intervention then poured in.  Suggesting that this might be a good idea in the earlier years is met with agreement but concerns about where the time will come from to go back over work.  Moving on before an idea or practice has been fully grasped is not a time saver.

We need to move our thinking away from curriculum coverage towards securing the necessary knowledge, skills and understanding close to the point of first teaching.  It’s the basis on which future learning will be built.  We also need to move away from aggregated data to data that reveals to a teacher where the gap(s) in the learning progression or flow, towards a key idea or concept, actually are.  Quality assessment during as well as at the end of a particular scheme or unit of work is invaluable in identifying these gaps.  So much of the detail is in the analysis which is essentially planning for the next lesson or two.

Photo Credit: Benjamin Reay via Flickr cc

What am I about to teach that you already know?

There have been a number of times in the past couple of years that I’ve stood up after speakers who have received at least warm and sometimes rapturous applause when stating that “we should not be assessing pupils on things we haven’t yet taught them”.  I express my view that we should be assessing pupils on that we haven’t yet taught them; before I get lynched, I produce my trump card which is Key Stage 3.  This is a three year period in secondary schools where teachers spend far too much time teaching pupils what they already know; some time reminding and revising is sensible but not whole scale re-teaching of the primary curriculum.

Assessment of prior learning along with many more conversations with primary teachers, sat alongside secondary teachers, as Year 7 & 8 schemes of learning are written would help resolve a number of problems.  Knowing the appropriate curriculum starting point is valuable; you still need to check for gaps in pupils’ learning so any gap between the proposed and actual point at which you start teaching may be bridged.

What do I teach well and what less so?

We’ve ditched lesson grading altogether.  Interestingly, with our assessment system, staff are beginning to answer this question much better than they ever did when we were observing and grading hundreds of lessons per year.  Looking at their analysis of the latest pupils’ assessment they are becoming adept at spotting patterns and trends.  If pupils can’t respond consistently well to a particular question or component of the assessment I may need to look at a different way of teaching it, supported by a colleague who appears to have taught it much better, or review the learning sequence suggested in the scheme of learning.  Did I miss a step or go too fast at one point and not take the pupils with me?

The conclusions or inferences we are beginning to draw about what our pupils do and don’t know or can or can’t do and what we do or don’t teach well are more valid and useful than ever before.  We’ve moved to more assessment for teachers and learners and less assessment for leaders.  It’s been a three year journey and there is much more to do.

Assessment needs to sit at the pivotal point between teaching and learning; collecting the right kind of data is key to achieving this goal.