Assessment advice

Written by: HTU | Published:

Assessment in primary schools must be appropriate to the learning context and the learner’s needs. Rebecca Clarkson and Liz Twist consider what good assessment looks like and offer their research-based advice on effective practice

The year 1 phonics screening check, a new grammar test, changes to assessing writing at key stage 2, a forthcoming new curriculum – the assessment arena is changing. So what should teachers be doing in your school?

Within this changing context, it is useful to remind ourselves what assessment is. Many people think that assessment means taking a test, but effective assessment should consist of much more than that. It is likely that both of the main assessment types – summative and formative (also referred to as Assessment for Learning) outlined below – take place in your school. A summative assessment can be a written test, an observation, a conversation or a task. It can be recorded in a variety of ways: through photographs or other visual media, through an audio recording, the teacher’s note or as a written product.

Whichever medium is used, the assessment will show what has been achieved by a pupil at the end of a certain time period. The period of time will vary, depending on what teachers want to find out. There could be an assessment at the end of a topic, at the end of a half-term or a term, at the end of the year or, as in the case of the national curriculum tests, at the end of a key stage.

Formative assessment takes place during learning, allowing teachers to assess progress on the learning journey. It begins with diagnostic assessment, indicating what is already known and what gaps may exist in skills or knowledge.

If teachers understand what has been achieved to date, it is easier to plan the next steps. As the learning journey unfolds, further formative assessments indicate whether teaching plans need to be amended to reinforce or extend learning.Formative assessments can also be recorded in a variety of ways, or may not be recorded at all, except perhaps in the lesson plans drawn up to address the next steps indicated.

So what constitutes good assessment practice?

The methods of assessment that teachers use in your school should be fitted to the learning context and, most importantly, the learners’ needs. It is essential that the assessments chosen are valid. This means that they assess what is intended and that they fit the use to which the results will be put. Your school’s assessment policy can reflect this by outlining good practice, as well as expectations about when and how to assess.

When choosing assessments it is good to bear the following in mind:

• Ask yourself whether a given activity truly probes understanding of the relevant aspect of the curriculum or gives the pupil a chance to demonstrate his/her skills.

• Consider whether a pupil could respond in a way that might suggest competence or understanding where none really exists (for example, by mimicking a response from another pupil or using key phrases without understanding).

• Develop questioning techniques or activity outlines that encourage expanded responses so you can evaluate the true extent of pupils’ achievement or understanding.

• Adapt assessment methods when assessing pupils with SEN or English as an additional language, but the same underlying principles of assessment apply.

• Some pupils find it hard to record their achievements in writing. This does not mean that you cannot assess these achievements, it just means that you may need to use other media – audio, visual or observational.

• Remember that good practice in assessing pupils with particular needs can also benefit other pupils, so consider using these methods more widely.

When and what should be assessed?

Teachers should aim to assess only when it is needed and make sure that outcomes are fed back into future teaching plans. They should try to collect assessment evidence from several areas of the curriculum, rather than depend on the core subjects of English, maths and science.

A child may demonstrate sophisticated data handling skills in a science investigation, for example, or the ability to construct an extended piece of biographical writing in history.

If the outcomes from assessments are not going to be used by teachers, they should reconsider doing them. It can become more of a habit to ask children to complete an assessment at the end of a phase of learning than an educationally sound activity that gives useful information for their next steps in learning.

If teachers are not making use of the outcomes from assessments specified by others, they should think about ways that they might make these more useful. Asking children to work on their own or with a peer to review a piece of work and identify how it could be improved may be of more value than a teacher grading the work and reporting back to the pupil.

Encourage teachers to share their ideas. Assessment is easier when subject knowledge is solid. All teachers have strengths and weaknesses and no-one can master all subjects taught in a primary school. Ask your subject leaders to assist others or provide mentoring sessions.

Supporting assessment in schools

The rapidly changing inspection landscape means there is more pressure than ever on schools to keep themselves and their pupils on track, with some even risking the loss of their “outstanding” rating if they cannot demonstrate suitable commitment to setting and maintaining a gold standard of teaching and learning. In this context, assessment is a vital tool, as a measure not only of current standards but the basis for improvement. Some resources which could help are listed below.

Resources and further information

• The Getting to Grips with Assessment leaflets are a useful starting point. This series provides information and advice for practitioners. They address formative and summative assessment methods, how to handle performance data and teacher assessment of performance, and how to make best use of test and other data. Wider issues such as how to put together and implement an assessment policy for a school and how to communicate assessment information are also covered.

• NFER has launched Visit a new suite of summative tests in reading and mathematics for years 3, 4 and 5, in response to calls from teachers for an up-to-date alternative to many of the tests widely used in key stage 2. The tests can be used to help monitor pupil progress and identify an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, so support can be better tailored to meet their needs.

• If you are interested in formative assessment, a demonstration of NFER’s online formative assessment service is available. Designed for primary schools, it is an online tool based on regular, short paired tests in reading, maths and science. It features summative and formative reporting in line with the new Ofsted framework.

• Further information on the NFER Centre for Assessment.

• More information on the work of the NFER.

• Rebecca Clarkson and Liz Twist are members of the Centre for Assessment at the National Foundation for Educational Research. Both are former teachers and have been involved in the development of statutory and non-statutory assessments for use in all key stages.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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