For teachers to thrive, assessment must evolve

Brendan Nel

Originally from South Africa, Brendan Nel now lives in north west England with his wife and two sons. He is the founder of AskEDDi.com, a school improvement and diagnostic system for Primary, Secondary and Further Education. AskEDDi.com is fully integrated with Microsoft Office 365 and Teams, and operates with all major MIS solutions.

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Image credit: Burst // Sarah Pflug. Image credit: Burst // Sarah Pflug.

One of the defining characteristics of successful schools is how they deliver assessment. How effective a school is at assessment goes a long way to determining how they are perceived by parents and other stakeholders. Assessment is mission-critical in the constant drive for “school improvement”, a buzz-phrase has now become a key strategy outcome for school leaders.

'Improvement' must now be seen across many fields on any schools' annual scorecard. Headteachers are increasingly looking for ways to encourage“The volume of in-term testing can vary considerably.” and empower teachers to focus on the development of personal best practice through being ‘reflective practitioners’. Self-reflection has been seen to generate incremental gains in teacher performance, contributing to the momentum of improved attainment within schools. It has also helped to build a teaching community that is engaged, motivated and confident.

With this in mind, I would like to ask a question of school leaders:

Could standardised school assessment practices assist in teachers being 'reflective practitioners'?

Assessment is fundamentally unstructured across MATs and LEAs, and varies substantially in how it is delivered in schools. Practices and system solutions are being developed in-house, whilst data outputs are left to interpretation by senior leaders. Assessment generates data about students, but also shows how a teacher's lessons are being adopted and absorbed by the class. In many schools, data is used in a performance accountability model.

In different subjects, and even by teacher, the volume of in-term testing can vary considerably, whilst the use of that data to coach and support teachers also varies dramatically. Current assessment practice means that data is rarely fed back to teachers - to assist and encourage 'self-reflection' - on a regular basis. Teachers are apparently being asked to ‘predict’ future marks of students with little insight to support their views.

If we want teachers to focus on how they can improve, timely data about their lesson effectiveness and students’ levels of understanding is critical. Today's haphazard, slow-moving assessment practices fail to help. There is no widely-accepted, whole-school tracking and assessment system which has been adopted irrespective of school resource or school size.

The challenge for MAT and LEA leaders is to work collaboratively in the field of assessment; to forego individually built solutions. This is the single biggest opportunity for the education system, for three key reasons:

1. Consistency

The amount of time and focus that leaders give to building their own assessment solution is extremely expensive. Varying solutions will draw different conclusions, dependent on the leaderships objectives and OFSTED reports. The mass adoption of a singular system across MATs, LEAs and independent schools will enable both consistency and a simplification of the assessment challenge. The standardisation of assessment content across large numbers of schools will mean best practice can be identified quickly.

2. Flexibility

A widely-adopted system would be flexible enough to be implemented and fit into the operational model of any school. Some schools currently choose to create Question Level Analysis (QLA), whilst others do not due to perceived administrative challenges. This substantial pedagogical anomaly could be eradicated, and all schools could possess real-time "knowledge gap analysis". Teachers could implement timely interventions to significantly change levels of attainment.

3. Transition & Velocity

One unified assessment solution could have a major impact on the internal ‘stress level’ of a school. Teachers across all key stages and subjects would work to a uniform structure and series of expectations that can be defined and set at the start of every year. This consistency of systems across Key Stages 2 and 3 would mean that the transition of students' assessment data would be seamless. Key Stage 3 baseline assessments in Year 7, meanwhile, could be significantly reduced or eliminated.

A uniform assessment solution will bring an increased velocity to data insight by removing unnecessary blockages of assessment results back to teachers. Indeed, the implementation of formative assessment would now become easier to deliver, due to the system enabling this to happen. Leaders of MATs and LEAs could moderate remotely, and utilising assessment as a tool to strategically manage cohort performance.

Let teachers be teachers!

A school's assessment process should not be dependent upon a data manager or deputy headteacher’s ability to build multiple excel spreadsheets. Teachers should not be expected to be data scientists, constantly interpreting and analysing data, or becoming mindless data clerks to update countless spreadsheets. The current model of assessment is too laborious and unfair on teachers; it prevents them from being effective in their professional development.

How can we expect teachers to be held to high levels of accountability at the end of a year without the knowledge to be able to change those outcomes as they move through the school year? Assessment models are setting schools up to fail, and have the capacity to generate the impression of constant disappointment in results when, in reality, teachers have performed to a very high standard.

The workload burden that is placed upon teachers continues to be an issue, but the systems and solutions have not evolved to support them. Indeed, they create workload due to their antiquated nature. They are not built for scale, nor are they fit for purpose. It’s time for change.

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