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Expert Ways To Dramatically Improve Student Assessments [Guest Blog]

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Assessments in teaching are very much a firm standard in any school or education establishment. Of course, viewpoints on the effectiveness of regular assessments vary dramatically amongst teachers and education professionals but, there is no avoiding them. So, how do we make sure that we are assessing students in the most effective way and what are the current problems regarding assessments that we need to take into consideration?

Expert education blogger and experienced History Teacher, Neil Martin, offers his interesting viewpoints surrounding class based assessments and provides his insights into how best they can be improved to the benefit of both staff and pupils.

Neil regularly shares his expertise and views on the education sector on his own blog 'Actuality'  

Part 1 - Current Issues Surrounding Assessment In Teaching (Published 2016)

Part 2 - Solutions (Published 2017)

 

Part 1 - Current Issues Surrounding Assessments In Teaching

Student Completing Her Assesment

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Assessment becomes more and more important by the day. School pupils are reminded constantly about the necessity of working hard and achieving good results and government statistics on those achieving 5 good GCSE grades seem to be rolled out month on month. Testing and assessment are, of course, important and there is no getting away from it in schools.

 Nevertheless, are we assessing in the most productive way?

Is the constant push for better results actually having a negative impact on our students?

In this blog, I use History teaching as the basis for my observations, but I suspect that a teacher of any subject would identify with some of the problems and hopefully the solutions suggested.

In my experience, I would argue that we have to very careful in the way that we assess students. When I working in the maintained sector there was a requirement to demonstrate which national curriculum level students in years 7 – 9 were at and also to demonstrate that they had progressed. Termly assessments were key as well as a formal end of year exam which, it was hoped, would show improvement.

This system had its strengths, in particular, it emphasised pupil responsibility and ownership in that they were encouraged to target areas for improvement (for example one of a range of historical skills). Furthermore, this reflective element really made students read teacher comments carefully and also fully understand what exactly they needed to do in order to achieve their next level, at KS3, or a higher grade at GCSE or A level.

However, one needs to be careful with focussing too much on level descriptors as it can actually cause problems. For example, teachers end up making a best fit or 'fits all' judgement on a student's work, indeed as Burnham and Brown (2004) point out the level descriptors do not chart progression and in fact are good for only a summative assessment at the end of an academic year. Student's themselves can find level descriptors difficult to understand and also to see the point in them.

Furthermore, there is a case to suggest that with certain iterations of the A level and GCSE History syllabuses that it is possible to receive a high grade without actually knowing much historical detail; a point noted by Chapman (2011). Vague statements relating to 'attempting analysis' or 'producing simple statements' focussed mainly on skills and I am very thankful that new A levels now appear to be redressing the balance in terms of historical content.

Teaching to the test is also an area that many will be familiar with. Pressures from SLT, parents and governors mean that teachers invariably have to come up with more innovative ways of helping their students to achieve better results. I am guilty of this, increasing revision sessions and creating highly detailed scaffolding for students to follow in order to achieve the various demands of mark scheme level descriptors.

Whilst this does achieve good results, there is always a nagging feeling that students may have been rather short changed. Particularly if we take our subjects from a purely academic perspective assessment of this type stifles the creativity, flexibility and eclectic nature of excellent teaching, moreover are we doing them and the student's justice?

 

Part 2 - Solutions

Students Working On An Assesment

How can assessment be of use for students? Again I use my own subject, history, as a case study but once more I believe that many subjects would be able to identify with the solutions outlined.

An answer lies with making sure that the assessment procedures are authentic and effective. Philpot explains that assessment needs to be a regular event providing ready and understandable feedback encompassing a variety of learning styles (Philpot, 2011). Harry Torrance offers a further solution. 'Divergent assessment' emphasises the learners understanding rather than that of the agenda of the assessor (Torrance, 1998). Using this model would allow for more understanding of what the child knows, understands or can do within the subject.

This is a wholly 'child-centred approach' and focuses on how the child responds to the curriculum, prompts pupils to reflect on their own learning and results in more descriptive, qualitative feedback (Torrance, 1998). This approach allows a teacher to move away from simply teaching to the descriptor and focussing on jumping through hoops; assessment is therefore not the problem but the way it is carried out.

Nonetheless, based on this notion of authentic effective assessment it is clear that the traditional forms of teaching to the test and teaching for the test are lauded in schools. Relatively, recently Ofsted's History for all (2011) has raised concerns over the use of the National Curriculum level, pointing to some schools that apply the descriptors in a very superficial manner, the report also states that using mark schemes to help students understand how marks are awarded and how this can help them to improve (Ofsted, 2011) is somehow excellent assessment practice.

Ofsted's Good Assessment Practice in history (2008) also praises those lessons that devote significant time to discussing assessment criteria. This is not historical understanding and again shows the traditional approach of teaching to the test and a set of outcomes. Until these assessment practices are changed then understanding cannot be assessed properly.

How can we assess differently?

There have, however, been many attempts and suggestions to make assessment more rigorous and more helpful in expanding pupil understanding. More than ten years ago Chris Culpin (2002) highlighted the problems with formulaic questions, answers judged against level descriptors even going so far as to claim that the assessment model was unfit for purpose.

Culpin's suggestions ranged from a single exam board and single syllabus to more teacher control in the assessment and design of courses and a reduction on board set papers. To Culpin giving students more time to develop as historians would also allow for more rigour in the way that they were assessed. Whilst Culpin makes a strong case there are clear problems with his suggestions. Allowing students more time to prepare for assessment does not necessarily lead to better historical understanding, only that students are more prepared for the types of question they may encounter.

Student Assesments

Similarly, Cuplin suggests a modular structure to the course, again the problems highlighted earlier of teaching to a test either in terms of skills or content are clearly evident.

Mark Cottingham (2004) has experimented with methods that allow for National Curriculum levels to be used in their intended form, at the end of the key stage. Cottingham comments that there are conflicting demands in assessment at KS3, from making assessment meaningful and rigorous to using it to make a judgement based on vague level descriptors.

Cottingham draws on AFL principles to suggest the use of individual student progress sheets traffic lighting, to show understanding in key elements of the unit of work, and TARS (Teacher Assessment Record Sheet) (Cottingham, 2004). When combined the student and teacher records can be used to provide a level at the end of the key stage as progression in key areas can be charted. This is very close to Torrance's 'divergent model' of assessment and allows for the teacher and student to have a dialogue over progression and understanding. The student acts on feedback from the teacher and their own reflections and sets attainable targets for improvement.

Cottingham concludes that his approach can inform schemes of work and allow for the development of effective assessment strategies supporting pupil progress and understanding (Cottingham, 2004). Nonetheless, the AFL approach has been criticised. Kitson and Husbands (2011) suggest that many AFL strategies can work generally for History (and I would imagine other subjects) but cannot readily be used to assess more difficult concepts about nature and extent of change (Kitson & Husbands, 2011). Whilst this is a valid observation Kitson and Husbands suggest that AFL needs to be adapted to advance rather than divert subject understanding (Kitson & Husbands, 2011). I would propose that Cottingham's approach goes some way in achieving such adaptation.

In an attempt to address the problems with National Curriculum levels Jerome Freeman and Joanne Philpot have experimented widely with the use of APP (Assessing Pupil Progress). The reasoning behind this is to build holistic assessment into everyday teaching and also to gain a far deeper understanding of the individual learner's achievements (Freeman & Philpot, 2009). In practice, APP can improve curriculum planning and remove reliance on traditional testing procedures. Freeman and Philpot advocate a periodic review of evidence to build a profile of achievement based on various assessment focuses (AFs) which illustrate characteristic achievement at each National Curriculum level.

The benefits of this approach include gaining a clearer picture of achievements and progress, an emphasis on using a range of evidence that can broaden the curriculum and a secure basis for pupil tracking against National Curriculum levels (Freeman & Philpot, 2009). Additionally, APP allows for a much better understanding of levels in terms of pupil learning and progress, pupils are encouraged to identify how each lesson fits into the 'big picture'. Ultimately as Freeman and Philpot explain, 'if we want pupils to enjoy and get better at history

In practice, APP can improve curriculum planning and remove reliance on traditional testing procedures. Freeman and Philpot advocate a periodic review of evidence to build a profile of achievement based on various assessment focuses (AFs) which illustrate characteristic achievement at each National Curriculum level. The benefits of this approach include gaining a clearer picture of achievements and progress, an emphasis on using a range of evidence that can broaden the curriculum and a secure basis for pupil tracking against National Curriculum levels (Freeman & Philpot, 2009).

Additionally, APP allows for a much better understanding of levels in terms of pupil learning and progress, pupils are encouraged to identify how each lesson fits into the 'big picture'. Ultimately as Freeman and Philpot explain, 'if we want pupils to enjoy and get better at history than holistic assessment is a step in the right direction' (Freeman & Philpot, 2009, p. 13). This approach fits well with Torrance's divergent model and allows pupils to see where their learning is heading, without a loss of understanding.

Many practitioners have suggested moving from the traditionally written assessment in order to truly measure historical understanding. Matt Stanford's (2008) work on non-verbal assessment highlights the refreshing way that pupils can be assessed differently. By combining setting pupils the task of completing an enquiry question with a piece of art Stanford encouraged students to demonstrate their understanding of the renaissance in a truly unique way.

A key area of planning was in giving students a sense of period that 'would allow them to contextualise the subsequent historical knowledge' (Stanford, 2008, p. 6). This was achieved through an enquiry of eight lessons and the final task that would be assessed. Not only were students demonstrating their knowledge of historical content, but because this was a practical assessment they were also demonstrating their understanding of artistic techniques of the period.

Student Assessments

This, surely, demonstrates a far better understanding of the Renaissance than simply learning about different artists and allows all students to more readily demonstrate their understanding. Stanford himself notes that this should not replace more traditional written and oral assessments but to use it will allow a teacher to gain more of an 'understanding of what the student knows' (Stanford, 2008, p. 11). From this broader understanding, assessment criteria can be better achieved.

Fulard and Dacey (2008) take yet another approach to assessment. Their approach was developed from the belief that the limits of essay writing were becoming more and more obvious; speaking and listening seemed to offer a solution (Fullard & Dacey, 2008). Through an integration of National Curriculum levels into concepts and processes, Fullard and Dacey hoped to launch progression to A level at KS3 rather than have pupil ability reduced at GCSE. Pupils developed debating skills through various enquiries and were assessed on their ability to pursue a full debate in class as well as the notes they took and questions they asked.

The results were pleasing demonstrating, at least for high ability students, that this different type of assessment can be adequately deployed. However, some students made inadequate use of the preparation stages and failed to grasp the underlying concepts of causal reasoning. Fullard and Dacey admit that 'speaking and listening is not the answer but it is part of the answer to the problem of assessment' (Fullard & Dacey, 2008, p. 29)

Clearly, if the assessment is to be of use then it has to be valid, reliable, authentic and robust. Assessment or measuring needs to take an integral place in the classroom and be part of everyday planning, teaching and learning. Torrance's (1998) divergent model has been a driving factor more recently and some those better methods that have been developed over the last decade show a clear correlation to this assessment type. It is clear that assessment needs to have the individual learner placed at its centre and that a dialogue needs to exist between teacher and learner in order for that learner to progress in their historical understanding.

Most importantly, however, is that the concept of assessment or measuring is not the problem rather it is the way that the assessment is undertaken. A more eclectic approach is vital if the subject is to be accessible for all students and for those students to succeed as demonstrated by Stanford (2008) and Fullard and Dacey (2008). Teachers should not be afraid of attempting a different kind of assessment especially if that assessment or measuring can assist in pupil understanding and should take the time to do so and learn from the results.

References

Burnham, S., & Brown, G. (2004, June). Assessment without level descriptors. Teaching History(115), pp. 5-13.
Chapman, A. (2011). The history curriculum 16 - 19. In I. Davies (Ed.), Debates in History Teaching (pp. 46 - 55). Oxford: Routledge.
Cottingham, M. (2004, June). Dr Black Box or how I learned to stop worrying and love assessment. Teaching History, pp. 16-22.
Culpin, C. (2002, December). Why we must change history GCSE. Teaching History, pp. 6-9.
Freeman, J., & Philpot, J. (2009, December). Assessing Pupil Progress: Transforming teacher assessment in KS3 history. Teaching History, pp. 4-13.
Fullard, G., & Dacey, K. (2008, June). Holistic assessment through speaking and listening: an experiment with causal reasoning and evidential thinking in year 8. Teaching History, pp. 25-29.
Kitson, A., & Husbands, C. (2011). Teaching and Learning History 11-18. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Ofsted. (2011). History for all. Retrieved March 16, 2013, from Ofsted: http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/history-for-all
Philpot, J. (2011). Assessment. In I. Davies (Ed.), Debates in History Teaching (pp. 261 - 272). Oxford: Routledge.
Stanford, M. (2008, March). Redrawing the Renaissance: non-verbal assessment in year 7. Teaching History, pp. 4-11.
Torrance, H. (1998). Investigating Formative Assessment: Teaching, Learning and Assessment in the Classroom. Buckingham: Open University Press.

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