All singing from the same hymn sheet: a new approach to assessment

By Claire Hodgson

Thursday 30 March 2017

At NFER we have long been involved in assessment and have worked closely with schools to help provide assessments and other products and services that support effective teaching and learning. We were aware that the abolition of reportable national curriculum levels created a dilemma for schools – on the one hand it gave them greater autonomy in the way they plan and assess learning; on the other, it created uncertainty about what this new way of assessing should look like. NFER was not alone in recognising this dilemma and, in partnership with ASCL (The Association of School and College Leaders) and SSAT (The schools, students and teachers network), decided to develop a free-to-use resource to support schools in developing their own approach to assessment.

The partnership’s strength came from a joint belief that the best and most effective assessment systems:

  • are clear, consistent and coherent
  • are shaped through structured dialogue with the whole school community
  • maintain consistency across the school, whilst allowing subject specific flexibility.

Similarly, we agreed that:

  • effective formative assessment is rooted in good pedagogy
  • staff training in formative assessment and engagement of staff in assessment design are imperative
  • one-size-fits-all approaches tend to be limited in their effectiveness
  • approaches to teacher assessment should be determined by school leaders and practitioners based on the needs of the school.

Developing an approach

The resource was designed for use in Key Stage 3 and approaches assessment both from the whole school and departmental perspectives. The aim was to make it applicable to all subjects (although six EBacc subjects: English, mathematics, science, geography, history and modern foreign languages are exemplified) and, whilst aimed at Key Stage 3, it can be adapted for use across all key stages.

The whole school approach

No matter what the assessment approach, the sharing of progress and the provision of information that is readily understood by students, as well as by parents/carers and other stakeholders, are vital. In defining a whole school approach, it is important to develop assessment strategies that are familiar to staff and learners alike, regardless of the subject. However, individual departments can adapt core approaches for their own use so that each subject becomes more tailored.

The departmental approach

We have placed formative assessment at the heart of our proposed assessment approach. This requires each department to consider the ‘big ideas’ of their subject and to be clear about the progression signposts. In doing this, teachers will be able to reflect on the ‘rarely linear’ nature of progress and think about when best to teach different topics to suit the needs of the learners.

Involving teachers

As an evidence-based research organisation, and because our partners have daily links with teachers facing these very issues, we wanted to involve teachers in shaping this resource. We wanted to make sure that we reflect current teaching and assessment practices and provide a resource that will resonate with teachers and senior leaders. We devised a set of key questions to prompt thinking about a whole school and departmental approach to assessment and posed these questions to a panel of experts; heads of department and representatives from key subject associations. The good formative assessment practice already going on in schools became apparent through the discussions and snippets of the conversations are included within the resource. This will allow users to confirm whether what they are already doing is in line with other schools’ practice and to pick up some alternative strategies to try out in their own classrooms.

A golden opportunity

When the resource was presented at the ASCL Annual Conference recently, it generated a lot of interest amongst teachers and senior leaders because, as our ASCL colleague said, “It is unique in that it is created by teachers for teachers. It is a framework to support teachers which asks and answers key questions about assessment in the classroom.”

Perhaps the dilemma of what to do when given free rein to decide your assessment approach should be seen as a golden opportunity to develop an approach that meets the specific needs of your learners in your school.

We hope that this resource provides a framework for school leaders, department heads and teachers to work together to do just that.