The recipe for effective assessment

Written by: Dorothy Lepkowska | Published:
Image: iStock

In the uncertain world of assessment without levels, it is paramount that schools opt for solutions founded on experience and research. Dorothy Lepkowska looks at how NFER puts together its pupil assessments

Ask any teacher what the chief challenges are in their working life these days and they will probably mention work/life balance, the impact of curriculum reforms and the lingering fear of Ofsted.

But among the major concerns remains the brave new world of assessment without levels. Some headteachers have claimed that the final report of the government’s Commission into Assessment Without Levels, published last autumn and focusing on the future of assessment in primary schools, has proffered little in the form of clarification about what should happen next. Schools say they remain unclear on what needs to be tracked, and how.

What is evident from the exercise, however, is that there is to be no replacement for levels, nor was the government’s Commission willing to recommend any one system of assessment over another.

Schools are pretty much on their own in deciding how they are going to test, track, monitor and record pupil progress and those who had waited to see what was going to happen next will now have to make some decisions.

For some, the removal of levels was welcome news. Some teachers believed they were unhelpful and a distraction. Others had come to rely on them. Levels, they said, offered some sort of uniformity across the board, which had now been removed.

Crucially, they were concerned at how the lack of levels might affect the evidence required by Ofsted in making its judgements. In short, will schools be left alone to develop systems that meet their needs unhindered by the inspector looking over their shoulder?

Developing any sort of successful approach to assessment requires some understanding of the principles and purpose of assessment. NFER has many years of expertise in designing and developing reliable and robust assessment systems, and is able to support schools facing the daunting task of what lies ahead. It works with teachers to find out what is required and what works best.

So, how does NFER develop its assessments?

First, its researchers identify schools’ needs. Working with heads and teachers, they find out what needs to be tested, the age of the pupils and what the assessment is intended to achieve. A small expert group then begins to develop the assessment in conjunction with schools, which help the group to identify priorities and features.

Every NFER assessment is carefully developed to ensure it is fit-for-purpose, valid and robust. The expert panel will consider existing evidence and research, which will help to inform and develop their work before it is trialled in a minimum of 10 schools to see how the materials or package actually perform in the classroom. As part of this process, they will conduct a cultural review, when an expert considers whether the test under development is suitably worded and presented to take into account aspects such as religion, ethnicity, gender and the school environment generally. The tests are then trialled on a more formal basis with a selection of schools and pupils.

A crucial element of assessment is standardisation. This reflects the extensive and robust trialling and analysis that is undertaken in test development. A robust standardisation allows teachers to compare the performance of individual children or a larger group, such as a class, with that of a nationally representative sample of pupils.

Now in NFER reading and maths tests, assessments can be linked both across and between years to show the progress of individual children or classes. This is important for monitoring pupil progress.

A statistical analysis is carried out by NFER experts, in which the performance of all parts of the tests are compared and this allows standardisation to take place. At this stage, the NFER team will meet with teachers who scrutinise the tests and provide another perspective on the level of demand of the assessment. Once these have been agreed, the NFER produces teacher guides, software and any necessary resources.

In-depth: The illustration above shows the extensive process that is completed in order to create an NFER assessment

NFER regularly engages with around half of all schools in England and 55 per cent of all state-funded schools, plus around 46 per cent of state schools in Wales in any one year. Overall, that means around 280,000 pupils and 8,000 teachers have an input into the work of NFER.

Its experts – in such varied fields as curriculum, assessment and qualifications, test development, reducing attainment gaps and supporting education – have a reputation for being professional, reliable, trusted and rigorous, and the Foundation is recognised as a leading independent education research organisation with its evidence frequently cited in government reports and used to inform policy-making.

But it is NFER’s Centre for Assessment that continues to be one of the areas of highest demand. To support schools facing the challenges ahead, NFER devised a series of practical guides to areas of the new curriculum and assessment of pupils at key stage 2. It updated its tests to reflect the new requirements and talked to teachers about how they envisage the future without national curriculum levels.

The team at the centre has also been developing NFER’s Reception Baseline Assessment and the organisation was one of three chosen by the Department for Education as an approved provider of these assessments. NFER experts also work closely with the Standards and Testing Agency as it delivers national assessment from early years to the end of key stage 2 in England. This has involved the development of questions and large-scale trialling of national assessment.

Liz Twist, head of the NFER Centre for Assessment, said: “Developing a successful approach to assessment in these changing times depends on a clear understanding of the purpose and principles of assessment. NFER has many years’ experience designing robust and reliable tests across the primary phase.”

She continued: “This expertise enables us to support schools in developing the best approach to assessment for their particular context, their curriculum, pupils and staff.”

  • Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education writer.

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