(Written in the UK with discussion of UK inspection standards, but the theme is universal and applicable to schools on a global level)
If assessment is one of the concepts that’s confusing these days, I’d easily understand.
The new EIF (Education Inspection Framework) has turned assessment on its head.
If you’re not yet firmly acquainted with the details of the new EIF’s quality of education standard, this is a good time to assemble your favourite caffeine cuppa and read with concentration.
If you are well versed, I invite you to view my take on the assessment challenge, after quite some years of dabbling in this volatile field.
Here’s the background, in a nutshell.
Before 2014, ‘assessment with levels’ was very defined, and described as prescriptive. So prescriptive that inspectors expected pupils from good schools to know precisely the level and sub-level they were operating at, and where they were aiming to reach. Those were the days of the 2- 4, 3 – 5, 4- 6 levels; strands and bands…
The 2014 framework eradicated levels, and put school leaders into a frenzy trying to establish a data system that would show progress.
This led to a lot of peculiar assessment practises, like testing pupils on material they had never learned, and then testing them on it again later, to prove that they had progressed. Or, testing the students on all the National Curriculum objectives in a variety of ways, three/six/nine times a year, and relying heavily on teachers’ professional judgement to establish the rates of progression.
And there was good reason to invest time, effort and money into preparing a robust data system. Inspectors grilled leaders to provide detailed information about progress.
As part of my training, I consulted with a few educational consultants, all of whom were acting or retired inspectors. At the time, I was in the process of developing The Track Master (The CSC tracker), and I commissioned them to preview and comment on my software. The guidance I received was along the lines of:
- Did you make sure it will be able to compare the progress of a cohort of students for two consecutive years, for e.g., the months between January and April?
- Can it calculate and compare the progress levels of the whole school from one data point to another, or to the following year, at the same month of the year?
- Can it provide a clear way to view pupils’ performance improving, in a variety of graphic presentations, according to National levels? (It took me about two years to devise a method to tackle this one)
As you see – very data oriented.
Software companies got creative. Leaders got very heavy on the trail for data – nice data. Teachers went crazy.
So, what happened next?
It’s 2021 and data has become a dirty word.
After huge teacher backlash, the new EIF makes it clear that leaders are responsible for ensuring that assessment is not misused or overused.
Here are some extracts from Non-association independent school inspection handbook, and the ‘Inspecting the Curriculum’ inspection guidance, 2019.
“Inspectors will look at whether schools’ collections of attainment or
progress data are proportionate, represent an efficient use of school resources
and are sustainable for staff.”
“Assessment is too often carried out in a way that creates unnecessary burdens
for staff and pupils. It is therefore important that leaders and teachers
understand its limitations and avoid misuse and overuse.”
“Inspectors will put more focus on the curriculum and less on schools’ generation, analysis and interpretation of data.
Teachers have told us they believe this will help us play our part in reducing
So, what’s the story? Does assessment matter?
Wait. There’s a more important question to consider first: What does assessment mean to you?
In recent months, when discussing assessment with school leaders, some of them told me, with great relief, that they had neglected or decreased their assessment systems. Ofsted no longer required it. In every case, when I probed a bit further, it wasn’t their assessment system that changed. It was that management of their curriculum had weakened.
Because assessment should have little to do with Ofsted, and everything to do with management of teaching. Period.
Before we delve further, let’s clarify the Ofsted angle on this.
Here’s some more legal jargon from the EIF.
‘At the heart of the EIF is the new ‘quality of education’ judgement, the purpose of which is to put a single conversation about education at the centre of inspection. This conversation draws together curriculum, teaching, assessment and standards.’ (From ‘inspecting the curriculum’ 2019)
‘Teachers and leaders use assessment well, for example to help pupils
embed and use knowledge fluently, or to check understanding and inform
60 teaching.’ (Non-association independent school inspection handbook October 2019)
‘Teachers use assessment to check pupils’ understanding in order to inform
teaching, and to help pupils embed and use knowledge fluently, and develop
their understanding, and not simply memorise disconnected facts. (Non-association independent school inspection handbook October 2019)’
Accordingly, your overall grade on quality of education, is going to largely depend on the strength of your curriculum, that provides focus and drive towards excellent teaching.
So where does assessment fit into this equation? Is assessment simply the method of showing evidence of your success? A ‘proof of purchase’ that you have ticked the boxes in doing what you should in regards to transmitting the National Curricula?
My view on this, and I am confident that this is the underlying theme of the EIF, is that:
What matters most is excellent teaching.
What precedes good teaching is an ambitious and high-quality curriculum.
What underpins strong teaching is effective management from the outset:
- Teachers focus on end points
- Pupils are clear about their objectives
- Both teachers and pupils feel driven to achieve the purpose of education: ‘to know more; remember more and be able to do more’ (EIF).
Of course, effective leadership will include active teacher performance management at the teaching stage, but at this point, I am discussing management at the blueprint stage, where plans and processes are mapped out.
Now we’re warming up to the key word: assessment.
Sitting down to a meeting and writing the word ASSESSMENT on a whiteboard or flipchart means that you are aiming to deal with the big questions:
- Why are we assessing? (What will governors, leaders, teachers and pupils gain from the assessment results?)
- What are we assessing? (Are we assessing what our students are learning – the impact of our curriculum and teaching – or choosing commercial, often unfitting, testing schemes? Also, which subjects are we assessing, and for each subject what assessment method is most suitable?)
- When are we assessing? (How many assessment points will be beneficial to suit our purposes? This will be different for various subjects)
- How are we assessing? (What are the most effective means of generating, recording and analysing data?)
Ironically, it’s the how part that that garnered the most attention before 2019, as software companies nation-wide competed to produce elaborate systems that would look the best; be the easiest to use and provide the label/level descriptors that made the most sense. It is actually, however, the least important part of the overall teaching and assessment cycle.
To me, the software bit is like a fabulous calculator. But impressive mathematical calculations that appear on the screen of the calculator reflect more keenly the abilities and purposes of the mathematician who pressed the buttons, rather than the piece of plastic that shows the result.
Assessment is about creating a system out of which successful teaching can emerge and flourish.
Assessment is about creating a system that monitors not only what the teachers are teaching, but what the pupils are learning.
Assessment is about spotting the gaps. Which specific pupils are underperforming? Which pupils need more challenge? Which teachers are not achieving effective results, when compared with parallel classes, and why? How are the Sen children performing according to the rest of the class? Which objectives in the curriculum are grasped successfully, and which ones need revisiting? In each class, how many children are operating at levels A, B, C etc.?
These are the sort of questions that leaders should be prepared to answer, when thinking about the success criteria for curriculum and teaching.
In essence, clarifying your school’s perspective and procedures for assessment, is establishing the blueprint out of which successful teaching and learning can take place.
There are no shortcuts.
Your assessment system must be bespoke. As unique as the school’s leaders; the governors; the ethos; the local environment/culture; the teachers; the parent body and the pupils.
Certainly, you can buy into a popular commercial scheme that offers graded tests for the core subjects, and shows great graphic presentations of pupil attainment. Grades you can rely on for reporting and, to some extent, for teacher performance.
But don’t fool yourself. Bypassing the crucial assessment questions I’ve raised above means that you are short-changing your curriculum and the teaching and learning that will unfold out of that curriculum.
Without a doubt, the quality of education in schools will depend a lot on how leaders create strong curricula that work for their school; whether they know where they want to go, and if they have set up robust systems for getting there.
I call this whole spiel Assessment.
Ofsted calls this: intent, implementation and impact.
To pull this together, consider this: Assessment means that you focus on impact from the intent stage, which propels successful implementation.
From the inspection framework…
In considering the quality of education: (paragraph 158)
Inspectors will consider the extent to which the school’s curriculum sets out the
knowledge and skills that pupils will gain at each stage (we call this ‘intent’).
They will also consider the way that the curriculum developed or adopted by
the school is taught and assessed in order to support pupils to build their
knowledge and to apply that knowledge as skills (we call this
‘implementation’). Finally, inspectors will consider the outcomes that pupils
achieve as a result of the education they have received (we call this ‘impact’).
However idealistic we are, we all need to be held accountable to administration to put forward our best efforts. Teachers and students are no exception.
And with excellent teaching, which is supported by great curricula, regular professional development opportunities and ample resources, why should students not progress?
Why do we need to be hung up on graphs showing nice upward patterns? If students are taught well so that they know more, remember more and can do more, why is this not called progress? Check their work and you will see their progress! Assess them on what they have learned and you will see their progress!
With meaningful assessment, focus is on the process, not on the outcomes. Teachers need maximum support. When leaders know where they want to get to, and they have their fingers on the pulse of what’s happening on the ground, in terms of curriculum delivery, the teachers have the best chance of being guided in a systematic way towards successful teaching and effective learning.
Why is assessment such a challenge?
Now for the Jewish take on these affairs…
From a Torah perspective, we are graded for effort, not results. Results are exclusively in Hashem’s domain.
An incident comes to mind of when I was teaching in a primary school, about fifteen years ago.
At that time, the school was awarding end of year certificates in certain areas. One type of certificate was awarded for ‘effort’. Another for ‘achievement’.
At a training event, a master educator got up to speak. He mentioned these certificates and took the idea to pieces. “What is effort, if not achievement?” he roared. “Every student is different. They will achieve according to their abilities, and the parent/teacher input that has been invested into them. But if they have invested their best effort, that is achievement on their level!”
Back to our topic: the results of assessments are indicative of where to next focus our efforts.
School leaders are responsible for ensuring a high quality of education in their setting.
Besides for on the keyboard of Microsoft word, I don’t know of many effectual shortcuts.
In plain English: no pain; no gain.
Good things don’t come easy.
Creating an effective system for managing the ‘curriculum-teaching-learning-assessing’ cycle takes time, focus and effort.
Maintaining it requires ambition, perseverance, faith, high quality leadership skills, time and internal and external support.
But once your system for success is up and running, it takes on a life of its own. The wheels are well greased, the engine is turned on, and the machine whirrs efficiently with minimal hitches. On a day-to-day level, you bump into less hitches and challenges, and have less patching up to do.
In the long run, an effective assessment system gives you strength and authority and saves you time.
Sometimes, doing things properly is the best shortcut.
Written by: Mrs M Rothbart, Director, The Curriculum Support Company ltd.
We welcome your feedback, comments and suggestions.
To consult with Mrs Rothbart about The Track Master, The CSC tracking system, or to offer feedback, email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.