Personalised assessment: A whole-school approach?

Written by: David Maytham | Published:
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A whole-school approach to personalised formative assessment – is such a thing possible? David Maytham argues that it is

Some might say that the statement above – a whole-school approach to personalised formative assessment – represents a contradiction in terms. How can a whole-school approach to assessment be personalised? How can a personalised approach come from a whole-school initiative? I would argue not only that a personalised approach can be consistent across the school, but that it should be.

The importance of formative assessment in every day classroom practice is largely undisputed and most schools will tell you that they regularly use formative assessment to support children’s learning and development. But what does formative assessment actually mean? Do all teachers have a clear understanding of what formative assessment is, what their school’s specific approach to using it is, and how they can use it to move children’s learning and understanding forwards?

I am privileged to work with schools and teachers all around the UK. In recent months, I have begun to routinely ask if they can define formative assessment and demonstrate for me what it actually looks like in their classroom. What’s interesting is that although the definitions they come up with are broadly similar and often incorporate words or phrases such as “on-going assessment”, “identifying gaps and next steps in learning”, their understanding of what formative assessment actually means in practice varies dramatically and is often no more than a list of gimmicks, such as two stars and a wish or a two roses and thorn.

So how do we make formative assessment more meaningful in our classrooms? There is a great deal of research into the subject, and this should be considered and reflected on when thinking about practice in our schools. Some examples of researchers’ ideas as to what formative assessment actually means include the following...

  • Coffey (2011) suggests that “formative assessment should be understood and presented as nothing other than genuine engagement with ideas, which includes being responsive to them and using them to inform next moves”.
  • Popham (2008) suggests that “formative assessment is not a test, but a process that produces not so much a score, but a qualitative insight into student understanding”.
  • More broadly, Bill Royle (2011) states that “any assessment that helps a pupil to learn and develop is formative”.

As a starting point then, is it enough for teachers within a school to all have broadly similar ideas as to how to define formative assessment? I’d say no. For schools to master and use of meaningful formative assessment on a daily basis, all staff first need to agree on a definition. This should involve staff collaborating, first to write down what formative assessment means to them, and then giving them opportunities to reflect on and refine their views, in the context of their school, to co-construct a definition that is meaningful and usable.

One school I worked with recently took this approach and defined formative assessment as: “An on-going and reflective, qualitative and accurate assessment process, using a variety of collaborative strategies to unpick an individual’s learning so that current and subsequent lessons or input move learning on.”

By involving staff in the process of defining what it means to them, you develop a shared understanding and vision for formative assessment in your school. The next stage is to then involve the staff in what it looks like in their classroom.

Formative assessment is explicitly linked to effective pedagogy. If we understand how and why children learn, and follow a progressive learning journey, formative assessment becomes a natural part of our everyday practice. The problem is that many teachers have lost touch with the heart of pedagogy. They are following a series of lesson plans, curricular systems and processes, often involving a conveyor belt of tasks, which need to be completed within a strict time limit.

In other words, in a deluge of systems, structures and paperwork, they have lost touch with what effective pedagogy really is. Processes in this scenario become the driver, rather than the children’s learning, due to external pressures. As such, formative assessment is often weak, disjointed and largely meaningless. Children’s learning should be a joined-up process. Formative assessments should be at the heart of this learning process and fully embedded as part of everyday practice.

This is where your discussion with staff comes in. What formative assessment strategies do they use already? What would they like to use? What would enable them to achieve the vision you have set out in your shared definition? Would it help to cut right back on paperwork and use a more formalised observation strategy or would it help to streamline the paperwork into one method? Could a one-page marking pro-forma help with this? Peer marking? Colour-coded (RAG) trays for children to put their books in at the end of the lesson to easily demonstrate how they have felt about their learning?

There are many different strategies that could work for you and I have no intention of laying down the law about which one is best. What I will say is that if there are many varied strategies being used within different classrooms – or even within one classroom – in your school, it is difficult to be sure that these are a) effective, b) meaningful, or c) working towards a whole-school, joined-up, defined goal, which ensures that every teacher not only assesses, but actually understands the progress of every child they teach.

One other point that I feel is very significant in the area of formative assessment refers to what I have always called “The Learning Triangle”. In order to achieve depth of understanding, there are three things a child needs: procedural proficiency, conceptual understanding and language competency. That is to say, they need to understand how to do it, why they’re doing it in that way, and have the vocabulary to explain it both to themselves, using their inner monologue, and to others. If these three things are achieved, they will learn, remember and achieve.

To take an example, let’s say there are three children who are learning their 12 times tables. Child A can confidently recite the tables all the way to 12x12 (i.e. has procedural proficiency), but looks completely blank when asked to consider what 13x12 might be (no conceptual understanding).

Child B can confidently explain how multiplication works and sort out physical objects into groups of 12 (has conceptual understanding), but is still using their fingers to work out 12x7, then 12x8 etc, so is not fluent (low procedural proficiency).

Child C can recite her table, pick multiples at random and answer correctly and can work out 13x12 easily (has procedural proficiency and conceptual understanding), but cannot explain how she knows or uses that understanding to solve a worded problem (no language competency).

The reason that this is significant when it comes to formative assessment is that if we can establish precisely which point of the triangle is causing the issue, we are much more likely to be able to support all three children in their progression. If we know that it is procedural proficiency that is slowing Child B down, we can provide opportunities to practise and speed up. If we know that Child A hasn’t grasped the why of the exercise, we can explain – or ask Child B to explain! – and give examples of how multiplication works in different contexts in order to move Child A forward. Only when we can get to the root of the difficulty can we remove it.

In summary, then, it’s essential that everyone in a school is on the same page when it comes to formative assessment. Take the time to create a shared definition in much the same way as you might establish your vision for the school more generally.

Formative assessment is an inherent part of effective pedagogy. It is being flexible and accommodating to your children’s learning needs by recognising those needs, not only in a general sense (Child X has not learned Y), but also in the specific sense of what the actual barrier to learning is and how to overcome it (Child X has not established conceptual understanding of Y, so needs the opportunity to do Z in order to achieve that conceptual understanding and, consequently, progress).

  • David Maytham is the founder of TT Education, a primary school improvement company which provides training, support and consultancy to primary schools. Visit

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