Refocusing assessment, so it works for the students and the school

And not primarily for inspectors, politicians or bureaucrats

The move from a single national assessment system (levels) to a more flexible, school-determined approach has provided new opportunities but also created some uncertainty, which still affects many schools. Some schools have been using externally produced assessment systems, while others have continued with levels in some form.

However, at SSAT we believe the most effective school assessment systems are those designed by practitioners to suit their particular context. This was confirmed by discussions with the schools we work with and with partner organisations ASCL and NFER.

The SSAT team and formative assessment guru Dylan Wiliam worked with expert panels made up of heads of department and representatives from key subject organisations, to explore how assessment works best in different subject areas.  The resulting resource, Refocusing Assessment, won’t tell you how you should assess your students. Instead it will aim to provide clarity on some key issues and support school teams in asking the right questions to ensure that you have an approach that works for your students.

Five key questions provide a starting point for all departments in a school to discuss their approach to assessment and how this contributes to the whole school assessment policy:

  1. What does it mean to be a successful student in this subject?
  • What is the purpose of our subject?
  • What does it mean to be a good mathematician/musician/historian etc? Is this what we are preparing students for?
  • What are the core knowledge and skills required for success?
  1. What is the purpose of assessment in our subject?
  • Why do we assess?
  • Who is assessment for?
  1. What does progress look like in our subject?
  • How do we know when a student is making progress?
  • How might progress vary over time?
  1. How can progress be assessed most effectively in our subject?
  • Which assessment techniques work best in our subject?
  • How successfully do we use formative assessment approaches?
  • How can formative and summative assessment work together to ensure effective assessment for learning?
  • How do we benchmark/quality assure our assessment practices?
  1. How do the assessment practices in our department contribute to/work with whole school policy?

Sharing students’ progress

At the whole-school level there needs to be a coherent approach to sharing students’ progress. Crucially, this information needs to be easily understood by the students themselves, as well as by parents/carers and other stakeholders. The assessment model will be different for each school, and senior managers can help this process through an ‘assessment map’ detailing the purposes of and information provided by different assessment strategies. Individual departments can adapt the strategies to reflect the specific curriculum and teaching requirements of their subject, and their students can then become familiar with the assessment strategies, which greatly helps with their learning. So, again, we five stages, summarised here:

  1. Establish and share learning goals with the students: explore what they already know and what they need to find out.
  2. Engineer effective classroom discussions, activities and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning. This requires establishing a classroom culture that encourages interaction and the use of assessment tools, such as ‘basketball discussions’.
  3. Providing feedback that moves learning forward: review progress as a whole class, using a visualiser or a document camera to share examples of good practice and analyse what makes responses successful; students can then find their own mistakes, and correct them.
  4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another: after being taught how to provide feedback, students might circulate their work to other members of the group and each adds a sticky note with suggestions for how to improve the work.
  5. Activating learners as owners of their own learning: eg, students complete a learning log at the end of the lesson, responding to prompts (eg Today I learned… One thing I am not sure about…).

How it works:

Colchester County High School for Girls

Dawn Frost, assistant headteacher, is contributing to an impending report on the second year of an SSAT/EEF project, Embedding Formative Assessment (EFA), looking at how a number of schools have applied these approaches. Here are some excerpts from the school’s report.

Staff at CCHSG have embraced all of the five strategies for EFA over the past two years. In particular they have valued having a closer look at providing feedback that moves learners forward through evidence of student learning and questioning. The strategies have been most noticeable when conducting lesson observations, work scrutinies and learning walks… colleagues have discovered, and in some cases, rediscovered processes they once used but passed over for different strategies.

Looking back through the results of two years’ worth of session surveys, all the staff involved feel they have become more effective practitioners in formative assessment practices. The percentage of colleagues who try new EFA ideas regularly has risen from 54% at the start of year 2 to 77%. Staff speak with pride about some of the AfL strategies they have been using in the classroom, especially those that they were unfamiliar with. One example is whole class response systems: staff shared their successes with the different methods, from the use of technology to ordinary A, B, C, D cards. This use has been noted in many lesson observations. Also noted: staff now have a wider toolkit from which to choose appropriate methods, and are more discerning in their choice of AfL technique.

As a result, staff reports include: ‘Students are better at reflecting on their progress – they have become more independent learners and reflective practitioners, especially in years 7 and 8’; and ‘Students are more involved in the process and have enjoyed doing things a little differently.’

We conducted a teaching and learning survey with the students in 2014/15. One of the students’ strongest suggestions was the desire for formative comments to move their learning on. When the students were surveyed ahead of the year 2 session on feedback, they were full of praise about how teacher feedback comments help them in their learning; some students gave clear examples of good practice. This feedback really boosted staff and reinforced that what they were doing now is appreciated, and more importantly had the impact they desired.

More reflective practitioners

We have all become more reflective practitioners, and we value a pedagogy-focused learning community. Staff have said that they really value the opportunity the sessions bring to meet up with different colleagues regularly and have reflection time to think about the teaching and learning that has occurred in their classroom.

To reduce potential session stagnation in the second year, we mixed up the groups in the second year and introduced new elements like different groups taking the starter activity and ‘live’ student feedback. The sessions are now a familiar, non-threatening way of meeting and sharing good practice in a positive way.

NQT and RQT teachers have also had the opportunity to present their practice alongside this group of teachers. This has enabled them to feel valued as a group; despite their relatively few years in the profession, they have been fully included and their input appreciated.

For the future, our current thoughts are to extend the project into developing teacher-led research groups. Focus on AfL will be combined with a ‘thinking school’ initiative. Staff will opt to join one of five strategies working parties and form their own mini TLCs.  In addition the school is seeking accreditation under the SSAT Leading Edge Framework for Exceptional Education, which is a natural progression.

Surprising reaction to student feedback

Staff reaction to the students feeding back their opinions on a variety of issues really surprised us. We thought staff would find that process quite threatening, but they said that they really valued what the students said. We think the fact that the students spoke in general terms without naming teachers, just subjects, helped. It was good to see the staff almost on the edge of their seat listening to students and really taking on board what the students were saying, especially over questioning and marking.

Staff were almost on the edge of their seats, really taking on board what the students were saying, especially over questioning and marking

This has had a positive impact on the student volunteers. They are now far more willing to attend sessions, which were once seen as daunting, to feed back to their teachers in a non-threatening way. This feels like a huge step forward and is something we will definitely be doing again next year.

Taken from the student feedback session’s ‘golden nuggets’:

  • ‘Don’t write ‘good effort’ – students do not value that and find it patronising!’
  • ‘Use questions as part of your feedback – students say this extends what they write’
  • ‘Use the margin to make your comments, rather than a bulk comment at the end – this allows students to see where the problem is’.
  • ‘Students like DIRT (dedicated improvement reaction time).’

To celebrate the culmination of the two-year EEF EFA project, on Friday 8 September Professor Dylan Wiliam will host an opportunity for all schools to share and celebrate their successes in the EFA programme.

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