Impact – Step 2: Sense-checking assessments

This is an edited extract from the book, School and College Curriculum Design 3: Impact. For more information on this book and the first two in the series, as well as to access a raft of free curriculum resources, visit our Curriculum Central page.

When we are clear why we assess, we need to ensure how we assess is the best possible way of doing so and that assessment results in useful and useable data. I would suggest we need to ensure that all our assessment decisions  are sense-checked for three things:

Purpose

As a handy rule of thumb, whenever we ask teachers to engage in any form of assessment, we should ask ourselves: Why? What is the point of this assessment? How will this assessment – and the data we collect from it – help pupils to make better progress and improve the quality of education that we provide?

Process

As well as considering the purpose of assessment, we should also think about the process by which teachers are expected to assess, input data, and report the outcomes of assessment. Here, it is useful to ask ourselves whether the process is as efficient as it could be or if it is unnecessarily time-consuming and bureaucratic.

Validity

Finally, we should consider how valid the data we garner from assessments will be. By this, I do not mean how useful the data will be (this is covered under ‘purpose’) but rather how accurate and useable it will be. In other words, although we may have confidence that the data will be very useful in helping pupils to make better progress (for example, by identifying ‘at risk’ pupils who require additional interventions), the actual data we mine from an assessment might not be as accurate as we had hoped and so all our subsequent actions may be futile or misguided. This is particularly important if we attempting to extrapolate progress between two assessment points – if so, we need to ask ourselves: are we measuring like-for-like, can these two assessments actually be compared? What does progress look like in this subject discipline and topic?  Is it linear or might it be more complex?

Making marking meaningful, manageable and motivating

Once we have sense-checked our assessment practices for their purpose, process and validity, I think we need to ensure that all the marking and feedback that takes place in our schools and colleges are meaningful, manageable and motivating…

1. Meaningful marking and feedback

To my mind, marking and feedback have but one purpose: to help pupils make better progress and achieve good outcomes. They might do this directly by providing cues to the pupil about what to improve, and they might do it indirectly by providing assessment information to the teacher to guide their planning and teaching. Marking and feedback carried out for any other purpose are not, in my view, meaningful activities and – as well as being a waste of a teacher’s precious time – can distract (and indeed detract) from this important goal.

Consistency is important but this does not mean unvarying practice. Whilst having a set of shared expectations regarding marking and feedback will help everybody to be clear about what is required of them, each subject discipline should be allowed to determine the detail of the policy for their areas, responding to the different workload demands of their subject and to the differences inherent in each phase and key stage of education.

The nature and volume of marking and feedback necessarily varies by age group, subject, and what works best for the individual pupil and for the particular piece of work being assessed. As such, teachers should be encouraged to be pragmatic, adjusting their approach according to context.

Schools and colleges also need to remember that marking looks different in different subject disciplines. As such, departments should be allowed to decide what effective marking and feedback looks like for them.

2. Manageable marking and feedback

A teacher’s job is a complex one and it would be possible to work twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week and still not feel that the job is done. And yet there are only so many hours in the day. It is important that, whatever approach schools take to marking and feedback, they ensure they protect teachers’ wellbeing because tired teachers do not perform as well and burn-out can lead to issues with teacher retention, and staff shortages seriously impede pupils’ progress.

Marking and feedback should, therefore, be proportionate. Any expectation on the frequency of marking should take into account the complexity of marking and the volume of marking required in any given subject, qualification type, and phase and key stage of education.

There is no doubt that feedback is valuable, but we need to decide which one of all the valuable things teachers do is more worthwhile than the others and focus on the areas of biggest impact for the smallest investment of teacher time and energy. Put simply, if teachers are spending more time marking and giving feedback than pupils are spending on a piece of work then your priorities are somewhat skewed.

3. Motivating marking and feedback

Marking can help motivate pupils to make progress. Short verbal feedback is often more motivational than long written comments on pupils’ work. Indeed, some pupils find written comments demotivating because they ruin the presentation of their work and are confusing or overwhelming.

Too much feedback is not only harmful to teacher workload, but it can also become a disincentive for pupils because there is too much information on which to focus and respond. What’s more, too much feedback can reduce a pupil’s long-term retention and harm resilience. To build retention and resilience, pupils need to be taught to check their own work and make improvements before the teacher marks it and gives feedback. Feedback should also prompt further thinking and drafting, perhaps by posing questions on which the pupil has to ruminate and act, as opposed to ready-made suggestions and solutions.

Feedback can be more motivating if it requires pupils to think. For example, we might use comment-only marking more often as this engages pupils because it requires them to take action. Rather than correcting a pupil’s spelling, punctuation and grammar, for instance, the teacher might place a letter in the margin for each error in that line using G for grammar, S for spelling, P for punctuation, and so forth. For the higher-performing pupils, the teacher could simply put a dot in the margin for each error. Feedback of this kind gives pupils something to do and therefore makes them think. By thinking, they are more likely to remember the feedback and avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Whole school v subject specific assessment

Some subject curriculums are linear, following a neat line between the starting point and the destination as pupils build on prior knowledge and make progress. But many curriculums are neither linear nor neat. They may be spiral or helical in shape; they may zigzag. Accordingly, it is crucial that subject specialists are afforded autonomy in deciding what their key concepts look like and how these might be planned and sequenced over time and then used as a form of assessment.

Before we can agree a subject-specific assessment system, I think we should write, consult upon and agree and articulate an assessment policy. From this point forwards, the assessment policy should be our guiding light; everything we do to develop an assessment system should support the delivery of our policy.

Once a new assessment policy is in place, each subject team needs to decide what unit of measurement they will use. In other words, how will teachers describe pupils’ learning and progress in that subject? Whatever measure a team decides to use, it must successfully quantify learning and progress in that subject and must do so in a meaningful way.

Subject teams should start by engaging in a process of detailed curriculum planning before they set about designing a system of assessment. Assessment should be the servant and not the master; the curriculum should be king. After all, how can you decide on your assessment criteria before you know what it is that you’re assessing? How we teach our curriculum and how pupils respond to it should form the basis of any new assessment system.

A team’s first task should be to design a curriculum with clear end-points or bodies of knowledge which describe what will be taught and when, and what learning will result. This kind of detailed curriculum planning – perhaps using my six steps of curriculum intent as a guide – is necessary if a subject team is to successfully develop assessment criteria. Teams should not make the mistake of rushing into designing a new assessment system before they’ve considered how their curriculum will be taught in practice.

A subject team’s second task, then, is to understand how a pupil’s knowledge and skills in those parts of the subject covered in a particular module or scheme of work will accumulate over the course of a term, year or key stage into a holistic understanding of the concepts, key ideas, and capabilities learnt in the subject. As such, curriculum plans need to be progressive in nature, developing gradually over time.

Only once everyone is clear about how pupils’ knowledge and skills will develop over the course of time, can a subject team move on to the third and final task: to develop a means of describing and quantifying what pupils are learning as they move through the curriculum.

A mastery learning approach is founded on the belief that all pupils will comprehensively know and understand the core content from each topic or module before moving on to the next. Progress, therefore, tends to be non-linear and tailored to meet the needs of each pupil. At the very least, it is likely to look different to how progress looks in other subject disciplines and thus must be bespoke.

‘Progress’ is a complex concept – a dotted line used to summarise the overall path taken along the mountainside, snaking towards the peak, which may go up as well as down as pupils find the right terrain and get a solid foothold in the rock. However, statistically speaking, we can estimate the average grade that a pupil is capable of achieving based on their prior performance and this information can be used to notify us if pupils fall below expectations.

Intended learning outcomes or objectives provide a good starting point for tracking pupil progress because they summarise what is taught in each lesson or unit and they are already widely used in lesson planning and delivery. Teachers routinely write and share objectives with pupils at the start of lessons and use them to measure progress in lesson plenaries.

As long as intended learning outcomes cover all the key concepts (end points) that must be learnt, then tracking and recording pupils’ acquisition of them should provide a cumulative assessment log which will quantify their progress at any given point.

Now visit our Curriculum Central page for more curriculum resources including a preview of Book Three.

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