Tackling the assessment challenges post-levels

Written by: Michael Tidd | Published:
Photo: MA Education

In the post-national curriculum levels world, how can schools ensure that their teachers are ready for the assessment challenges ahead? Deputy headteacher Michael Tidd shares his tips

In a world without levels where a new assessment landscape is suddenly emerging, it is hard to know where to turn. Schools up and down the country are working on a whole host of different models for in-school assessment, and without the common language of the old world, it sometimes seems hard to know how our own systems relate to the wider world.

In this new landscape of life after levels, each school is now in the process of developing its own system. However, the autonomy which has been given by the Department for Education (DfE) to schools has had the effect of creating doubt as to whether what we are doing will meet the needs of pupils, teachers, parents, school leaders and – of course – Ofsted.

How will we show progress? How will we moderate? How do we use our formative classroom practice to produce measurable data, without that data becoming the be-all-and-end-all?

Embrace freedom

While it might seem a bit intimidating, there may be some advantages to this new, freer way of working. The freedom for schools to focus their assessment practices on what suits their children, their school and their curriculum is an opportunity not to be missed.

This is a chance for schools to really own assessment, and it is one that we should not miss. Rather than focusing on broad descriptions of attainment, work in your school to set out exactly how your curriculum is organised, and then make sure that the assessments match the curriculum. Staff should be able to welcome the opportunity to focus on assessing what has been taught, instead of having to use the straight-jacket of levels. You can even adapt assessment to match the priorities of your school: if your school curriculum offers much more than just the statutory curriculum, why wouldn’t you want your assessment system to reflect that?

Make the most of testing

Tests have had a bit of a bad press over the years, but in reality it is the way we have used tests that has been problematic. The over-use of high-stakes attempts at trying to predict outcomes or to usurp teacher assessment was an error – but the fault didn’t lie with tests themselves. Used appropriately, carefully chosen tests can support assessment in the classroom, and help us to benchmark our pupils’ attainment against external measures.

Using excellent formative assessment is the most effective method for staff to make informative judgements about pupils’ learning throughout the year that will benefit the pupil.

Regular, light-touch assessment enables teachers to gauge how pupils are progressing, without relying on heavy duty testing. It doesn’t need to be a big deal: a 20-minute test focused on the content you have covered can really highlight those who have grasped the big ideas, and those who need more help.

Mind the gaps

Using regular quick assessment activities informs my teaching in a way that any good assessment tool should, all without becoming onerous or dictating the curriculum in the way tests once did. However, we don’t need to be testing every little detail. The curriculum is set out in depth to ensure coverage; it is not necessarily useful to track every last item.

Decide as a school which aspects are most important and focus your recorded assessment on these. Formative assessment in the classroom can take many forms, not always written.

Rather than duplicating work, focus on tracking the key concepts for the subjects in each year group. Record the essentials based on a range of evidence and ensure that any gaps in those key concepts are addressed rapidly so that pupils make good progress.

Combine formative and summative

Throughout the year, regular, small tests support teachers’ assessment and planning, and help us in making informed judgements as part of our wide range of assessment techniques. However, as we are entering 2016, we also value the opportunity to look at the progress of our pupils against a broader framework. That used to seem straightforward with levels, and many schools used government-produced tests to support other judgements. The flaw came when test results were seen to be more important than the on-going judgements made in the classroom.

Instead, tests serve their purpose best as a snapshot of attainment. In most schools, such snapshots can provide useful summary data. The key is in their use. Test scores, whether from individuals or cohorts, should represent a starting point in discussions about progress, not the final conclusion.

Optional tests that can sit alongside classroom assessment present a snapshot of information about how children are performing against the national expectations. They don’t tell us everything, but nor do they need to: we have teachers for that! Teachers know their students well; they are in their classrooms all day and everyday. If the tests show up a concern about an individual then we can use the teacher’s knowledge and other assessments to see what action needs to be taken.

The tests also help us to make quick broad judgements about vulnerable groups or classes of pupils. They do not tell us everything, but they provide a useful overview. Most importantly, they help to take the pressure off teachers’ assessments, which can be kept purely for formative use.

For too long the misuse of testing, combined with the labelling effects of levels and the over-use of the resulting data, meant that tests were seen as a narrowing driver of the curriculum. Schools are free now to develop their curriculum and assessment approaches to suit their needs. They should not be afraid of selecting tests to form part of that strategy, ensuring that they use them to support rather than replace the important work of assessment every day in classrooms.

Some key things to prepare for

With the new national curriculum tests looming, schools will want to familiarise themselves with the changes in expectations. Useful areas to focus on will include:

  • More challenging reading texts: the new higher level of challenge in key stage 2 reading assessments will come not from the old Level 6-style questions, but from demanding texts, so get plenty of practice with appropriately challenging examples.
  • Terminology in grammar: at both key stages the use of grammatical terminology is much greater than in the past; make sure your children are familiar with the language used in the tests to ensure the best success.
  • Written arithmetic tests: knowing addition/subtraction and multiplication/division facts will be vital, as will confidence in using the standard written methods of calculation in key stage 2, for this new style of test.
  • Fluency with fractions: the demand of questions about fractions are significantly greater in the new tests at both key stages so ensure your curriculum offers plenty of opportunities for experience and problem-solving using fractions and decimal numbers.
  • Michael Tidd is deputy headteacher at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire and assessment advisor to Rising Stars educational publishers.

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