Assessment in teachers' hands: a question of belief and confidence.

Talking to colleagues and to teachers I get the impression that some teachers and schools are getting confused about what assessment really is.

I have heard and read phrases such as ‘teachers are waiting to be told what to do’, or ‘the school will be using xxxx (a proprietary product) to assess’.

However, I can’t help but feel that teachers are doing themselves a disservice here. Teachers already know how to assess children’s learning - and no product can assess learning like a teacher can. (That's why the assessment support we are developing for autumn 2015 won't try to tell you how to assess, but rather facilitate you to do so within the framework of the new curriculum).

I believe the confusion is caused by the term ‘assessment’ being used interchangeably or as a short-hand to mean:

  • Knowing what children know and can do, so that they and their teachers can plan next steps and move the learning on. This might involve using information from observations, conversations, work submitted (in a variety of forms) and tests; also known as formative assessment.

  • Testing - knowing what a child knows in a given moment - but only in relation to the questions asked in the test; also known as summative assessment.

  • Recording – making a note of test results and interpretations from teacher knowledge of children's learning.

  • Tracking - recording results and interpretations over time for individual children and groups of children.

  • Progress - the difference between what a child is deemed to know/be able to do between two given moments in time.

  • Reporting – using the information gathered about a children’s learning, achievement and progress and gathering it into an appropriate format to deliver information and judgements to children, parents, governors, inspectors, local authorities and others.

  • Accountability – being held to account, for the achievements at a given moment in time and for the progress that children have made over a given period of time, against set criteria, standards  or expectations.

As far as I can tell the only thing schools are waiting to be told is what the expected progress between baseline and End of Key stage might be. However, this will not be available until national average progress measure can be calculated and that will not be until tests have been taken and compared across the country. 

Meanwhile the arrangements for SATS and reporting teacher assessments are available on the DfE website.

For everything else it is for the school to decide how they assess and report knowledge, ability (can do), attitude, happiness, and all the other essential aspects of their school life, to children, to parents, to governors and anyone else who needs to know.

The measure of progress in the curriculum should be against the national curriculum attainment targets. The government has arranged these to be appropriate (in their view) to the stage at which children should be for their age at the end of KS1, end of lower KS2 and Upper KS2. End of Key Stage tests (SATs) will continue to provide summative information, against the old national curriculum in 2015 and the new curriculum from 2016.

The government has also stated that the new national curriculum for England has been designed in such a way as to allow teachers the freedom to plan a curriculum that is meaningful for their children and their school’s circumstances.

The government claims there is room in the new curriculum for a relevant local or community element, for subjects to be studied in more depth and for learning to be deepened and broadened through practice and application of learning in different ways.

The number of schools really engaging with this at present seems relatively small. Of course, the new curriculum is still very much in its infancy, and change takes time. However, I can’t help feeling that perhaps teachers don’t quite believe in their newfound freedom yet. After all, they have had a decade and more of a very prescriptive approach to curriculum, teaching methodology, assessment and measures of progress.

Consequently, I think one of the biggest challenges for schools and teachers is to believe that their approach to assessment is in their hands and to feel confident in their own judgements. Much of this will come with time and with teachers talking to teachers about children's work and progress.

It is a big challenge! And I for one feel that the government has not acknowledged this aspect enough.

I think messages about assessment have got confused with the messages about accountability and the government needs to be a lot clearer with these communications and about its intentions – a conclusion it seems to have reached by itself, given the launch recently of the Commission on Assessment without Levels.

I would like to see the Commission ultimately providing the resources and funding to support teachers in developing the required expertise and, most importantly, professional confidence, by talking to each other, comparing work and through professional development.