December 2017

The know zone

  • Cold turkey
    Christmas comes but once a year... which is just as well for one head who dreads the forced jollity of scratchy sweaters, Secret Santa and elves dancing to Slade. More
  • Mind the gap!
    Despite all the talk about improving social mobility, Kevin Gilmartin says that the latest data on sixth form university admissions indicates that social mobility is actually getting worse. More
  • Measuring up
    Suzanne O'Farrell shares some tips on strengthening your assessment system to make it as robust and effective as possible. More
  • Primary assessment: the next instalment
    This term has seen the government respond to two major consultations affecting the primary sector: one on primary assessment, and one on the Rochford Review into assessing children working below the standard of the National Curriculum tests. Julie McCulloch picks out the headlines. More
  • Smooth transition
    How do you help pupils during the transition stage? Is your school or college doing something innovative to make the process run smoothly and to gently ease children and young people in? What approaches do you take? Here, ASCL members share their views... More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Hotline advice expressed here, and in calls to us, is made in good faith to our members. Schools and colleges should always take formal HR or legal advice from their indemnified provider before acting. More
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Suzanne O’Farrell shares some tips on strengthening your assessment system to make it as robust and effective as possible.

Measuring up

For those of us leading assessment in schools, we are in new territory. For the most part, we don’t know what a grade 7 or a 5 looks like and it is difficult to set meaningful targets.

So how can we tackle the challenge of developing assessment that we can rely on and that can contribute to rigorous target setting? How can we support our curriculum teams to be able to respond with confidence to that inevitable question about progress of their students, “So how do you know?”

The key question to ask is: what are the factors that dictate why, when and how you assess?

What do you want to measure?

Determining the specific skill, knowledge or understanding that you want to assess should dictate the most efficient and most effective way to do it, as well as the best timing. If subject experts can identify the key constructs in their curriculum, they can identify a set of tasks that would demonstrate that pupils have mastered them and are recalling the right pieces of learning at the right time. Assessments need to be carefully designed to gauge students’ long-term retention and ability to transfer information to new contexts, not just performance of short-term memory.

Space out summative assessments

If you are assessing and recording data from a large area (or sample exam questions) every six to eight weeks, this is likely to give you unreliable data, as it is difficult to make genuine improvements in large curriculum areas in such a short time. It may also have the disadvantage of making staff teach to a particular test. If you want summative assessments to provide you with valid indication of how well the student is doing, make them far enough apart to give pupils the chance to make genuine improvements.

They also need to cover depth and breadth of content, feature standard tasks taken in standard conditions and have a clear mark scheme.

Less is more?

It is worth spending more time on developing fewer, high-quality summative assessments so that the information you glean from them is more meaningful. In subjects like maths with questions that gradually increase in difficulty, it is easier to develop a mark scheme with a high degree of marker reliability. An essay-based assessment, on the other hand, requires a clear rubric of the quality expected with perhaps an example of a standard, and the understanding that subjectivity plays a part, to an extent, in this type of assessment.

Multiple choice

Multiple-choice tests are not appropriate in all subjects, but they have distinct merits in our new linear world. If they are constructed to examine important and not trivial content, if they can check understanding and not just memorisation of facts and if they are drawn from across different topics, then they can provide reliable data.

Using the same high-quality tests year on year, which are then triangulated with eventual GCSE outcomes, can help support your estimates of students’ future performance. It can be strengthened even more if the output of the test correlates well with other modes of assessment on similar material or correlates well with any standardised testing.

Beware too much grade focus

If you are measuring progress with grades, it may encourage a focus on those students who you hope to move from one graded category to another. This may be entirely justifiable but it is worth questioning whether you are prioritising students on the basis of small and statistically insignificant improvements below a certain threshold, as there is always error in measurement. Bringing together all the available evidence about individual student performance across a range of modes of assessment is more likely to mean that interventions are targeted at the right students.

Weave into planning

The process of assessment design needs to be interwoven into curriculum planning like strands in a piece of rope, focusing on the key learning required and ensuring it is appropriately structured and sequenced into the curriculum.

It means that you are focusing on and assessing what matters and that everyone is clear what you will do with the information generated by the assessment process.

Suzanne O’Farrell
ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist