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5 questions to ask before changing your school’s assessment system

Matt Koster-Marcon
Jun 14, 2018

Embracing a new way of conducting assessment in your school can be a tricky matter. It can also be a period of great excitement and positivity, as your staff and pupils move forward together to achieve a better, more suitable method for the modern school. With so many changes being thrust upon schools over the past few years, however, the enthusiasm levels in the staffroom for yet more change may be low.

Often teachers aren’t happy with the existing assessment process, they know change is necessary, yet the idea of further disruption is daunting and they oppose it, with a ‘better the devil you know’ mentality. Teachers need the security and assurance that any new assessment programme won’t be changed again 12 months down the line, that the new system won’t add to their already sizeable workload and that they will be given the trust and autonomy to do their jobs – the greatest desire most teachers have.

So before introducing a new assessment platform, senior leadership and those responsible for assessment in schools need to be asking some important questions about how changes will affect pupils, teachers and parents. Here are the five questions to consider before changing your school’s assessment system and to help find the approach that’s right for you.

Question 1: Does your school already use a consistent assessment policy?

Most headteachers we ask this question to say that “Yes, of course we do”. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find classroom teachers within the same school, subject and year group are often conducting assessments in slightly different ways, thus gathering different results, leading to inaccurate data.

With more freedom – since the removal of levels  – also comes more risk of expectations becoming confused. Whilst autonomy for teachers is important to feed confidence in the classroom, a school-wide policy for assessment is necessary in order to accurately chart progress from one year to the next; how teachers get students there is up to them, but the actual assessments themselves must be consistent school-wide.

Top tip: Before choosing a new assessment method for your school, get all staff involved through a series of workshops and ongoing training, to create clarity on what each assessment milestone means. For example, what does ‘Emerging’ actually mean for a pupil? If school leaders don’t know, how can teachers, parents or pupils know? If it turns out assessment is being conducted in a variety of ways in your school, decide which of these are the most effective and share good practice amongst peers.

 Children at school classroom

Question 2: Is progress currently measurable at your school?

The term ‘progress’ is so broad and has become so foggy in recent years, that, understandably, many school leaders and teachers feel confused about just how much progress students should be making. ‘Good’ progress for one school may look different to ‘good’ progress in another school. The word ‘measurable’ can also be clouded; does measurable mean hard, physical evidence? Can it be formative, captured within the flow of a lesson? Or does it have to be proven in a more formal setting? Can tiny steps forward still count as measurable, or does it have to be a larger leap towards a more concrete goal?  

Teachers know their pupils and understand the expectations they have for them throughout their time at school. If you can demonstrate what ‘good’ progress is for a pupil, and for your school, then don’t get caught up in the semantics of ‘good’ ‘expected’ and ‘on track’ progress – instead, show off the amazing steps pupils are taking with their learning each day.

Top tip: Professor Rob Coe recommends a focus on small, manageable chunks of feedback rather than grades: “an assessment with twenty questions has twenty bits of information. A grade has just one.” Remember it’s the twenty bits of information that are needed to assess progress made, not the one. If your school is still focusing on the ‘one grade’, you’ll need a switch in mindset to initiate a new assessment policy.

Question 3: How do staff react to change in your school?

There’s no question about the importance of staff in the onboarding process when you start a new assessment drive. Because teachers have been exposed to so many changes to education from the government in recent years, additional changes implemented internally may be met with distrust, exasperation and a lack of commitment. Remember, this is a natural response to what has already been a period of incredible change for them.

Think about how you use positive, influential and adaptive members of staff to support others who are less sure. Those who are feeling jaded and have experienced multiple approaches to assessment within a short space of time might need some TLC, extra support and modelling of good practice. Consider inviting them to participate in the rollout – it will help them to see that you respect their experience.

If you don’t think your staff are robust enough for another change right now, why not start researching and putting the leg work into discovering more about new assessment models? Speak to other schools, go to education shows and complete online research to find the best method for your school.

Top tip: Take the time to embed the new assessment system across the school community. Don’t rush, and prepare teachers for teething problems; tell them these are to be expected and while it might take some time to establish in the beginning, the end result will save hours of teacher time (for example, by improved reporting for parents, less manual inputting of data and fewer hours of marking for staff.)

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Question 4: How engaged in assessment are pupils and parents?

If students aren’t currently taking part in their own assessment, this will be a large jump for them, but a worthwhile one. Whether it’s through games, rewards, praise or, hopefully eventually, intrinsic motivation – the sheer joy and reward of the task itself – there are plenty of ways to make pupils more responsible in the classroom. Evidence suggests that accountability for their own learning encourages pupils to be more invested, more receptive and engaged through assessment.

Do you ever have that school-gate situation that revolves around parents comparing what reading books or work their children have completed? Friendly competition can be a good thing when directed in the right way – involving parents in the assessment process can be a valuable tool. There is extensive evidence to support the theory that children supported by parents at home flourish in their education more than those who aren’t, adding months of progress to their overall attainment.

Top tip: If assessment currently feels like the domain of teachers and teachers alone in your school, something needs to change. You need a three-pronged approach, where pupils, parents and teachers alike take responsibility for assessment and foster a culture where learning extends beyond the classroom. This will take a shift in thinking – especially for children and parents – but if children’s adaptability is utilised, parents’ engagement will follow.

Question 5: What strategies do you have to lead change confidently?

The semantics of assessment from school to school now varies, and even schools sharing a playground may have different assessment approaches. This has lead to school leaders occasionally having to defend their approaches, and others having to explain their decisions to those who may try to take the school’s assessment journey down a different path.

Those responsible for assessment need to lead with conviction, and the only way to do that is to research, research, research. Once you’ve decided on a platform to help you through assessment, learn everything you can about it – pre-empt the questions that teachers, governors and parents may have about it. You need to feel confident about the roll-out of this new approach so that positivity filters from the top down.

Top tip: Create a top-three list of strategies that could work in your school. Conduct some research into what similar schools to yours are doing and, if possible, go and see assessment in action. When you’ve got three potential products that you see working in your school, use your leadership team to whittle the list down to just one – the opinions of other leaders in your school are invaluable, but including too many people too early on could be counter-productive.

 

Once you’ve settled on an option, present the product to the whole staff, prepared with answers, anecdotes and a case study of another school who has used this method – convincing your staff is your biggest job, so go in armed with plenty of evidence.

Whether you’re looking for a large-scale overhaul of assessment or implementing just a few key tweaks to your existing model, going in “all guns blazing” is never the best option. Take a step back, ask yourself these questions and arm yourself with knowledge before rolling out a new assessment policy. Whatever you choose, it will be worth it in the end, once you’re achieving meaningful conversations about learning and accurate, measurable progress.

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