Why Assessment for Learning still matters!

Recently, I  read a tweet this week suggesting that AfL is past its sell by date. How disappointing! This means that, in their eyes at least, AfL was just another initiative that everyone raved about, said they were ‘implementing,’ then slowly forgot about. If this is the case for any practitioner, I can say without a shadow of a doubt they didn’t understand AfL.

In my post Authentic AfL: Check! I discussed Sue Swaffield’s idea regarding AfL being understood as just set of strategies or instead, as a pedagogy. In her view, too many schools think of AfL as simply a range of tools used to improve learning rather than a pedagogical approach which drives pupil towards learning autonomy. In short, implemented from the former standpoint, AfL strategies are all too often doled out in a ritualistic fashion, pupils comply by being seen to used them (perfunctorily) and in doing so become as passive as ever.  This is actually more common than we might all care to think. I’ve seen children more worried about getting success criteria stuck in their books than whether they actually understand them or know how they could help them- compliance at its worst.  As for WALT and WILF, how many times have you heard teachers and pupils talking about them, but not really discussing their content? But it’s all ok, as long as you have your WALT at the top of the page and the WILF is on the board, why waste time examining in detail what the quality aspects of WILF really are?  It worries me that assessment itself suffers from this problem too. Assessment is often understood only as a means to demonstrate accountability rather as a fundamental approach to learning.

Ironically, as research has shown (Swaffield 2011, Berger 2014), and what I know anecdotally to be true, when assessment is used to drive learners towards increasing levels of independence, agency and autonomy, learning progresses rapidly too so that the issue of accountability takes care of itself. This is not true the other way around however. When assessment it purely driven by the need to improve progress and ‘amount of learnt content’ it is does not automatically produce learners who understand learning, are motivated to learn and become increasingly better learners; often it does the opposite. This why so many young people can’t wait to leave education; there’s only so much learning to satisfy other people you can do; eventually, it becomes unbearable.

This is why it’s so disappointing that the renaissance AfL has brought to education (with things like its comment-only marking, success criteria and in-class teacher, peer and self-assessment) does not seem to have made many people examine what their desired outcomes of education (DOE) are.  In my opinion, it is the work of the Black and Wiliam (1998) which eventually led to levels being abolished because their work highlighted just how perverse the system had become and just how far the desire for levels had overtaken the need for pupils to learn well. Data quite literally led many schools to forget what they are there for! The constant pressure to ‘raise standards’ and the fear of OfSTED knocking on your door, accountability, and the panic to prove we’re really teaching, prevented many people revisiting, or even understanding in the first place, what their DOE really are.

I’m lucky enough to have got out to see lots of other schools and talk to lots of school leaders over the past couple of years, but it’s also opened my eyes to just how many school leaders say one thing, yet do another. There probably isn’t one of them who wouldn’t say I want these children to be ‘resilient life-long learners,’ yet to my mind there are only a handful who really lead on this and make it the heart of their leadership principles. The fact is that if school leaders allow accountability to motivate learning progress per se without much affect on the learners themselves, then their DOE are really only just children who are filled up with learning, but are not improved as learners and as people. On the other hand, school leaders who understand that assessment should be, as Ron Berger says, a framework for motivation as well as assessment, assessment really becomes powerful – and improves data too! Shame I feel the need to say that, but there will be those who still don’t see the difference between improving learning and improving learners.  Better learners learn more.

Dylan Wiliam talks about decision-driven data instead of data-driven decisions. For me what he’s really talking about is whether assessment motivates children as learners, teachers as educators and leaders as leaders of education, or whether pupils, teachers and leaders are instead driven by reactions to data. Data and assessment are different things. This is because a sound assessment framework in a school should support teachers in understanding the progression of the learning journey,  how to get there, each child’s next steps and what quality outcomes look like. In turn, this should mean the children know this because the teacher facilitates the children’s interaction, agreement and investment with this information through good teaching. The teacher can then assess the children against that concept of quality each time; teachers involves themselves in dialogue over this and moderate it so it’s really clear what the quality means and looks like. As well, the children can assess themselves with this and see what they need to do next, they can tell each other, advise each other too. This motivates them because they can see what to do and where they are going and if you hand children the responsibility to assess themselves as learners on this journey too, through pupil assessment conferences and presentations, assessment really does become the motivator. The more children are enabled to assess themselves, and show others how they are doing, the better they get at it and the more invested they are in themselves as learners. It becomes their learning. Not something done to them.

Like this, the assessment framework drives pupils towards improving themselves as learners, becoming more independent, reflective and self-managing – heading towards that ‘resilient life-long learner’ goal. Teachers know what the children can do and translates into data. Like this, data emerges from such a system – it doesn’t run the system. The data shows who can do what, where children, groups and cohorts of children are. It gives leaders a picture of learning across the school at which ever level they need. It forms the basis of professional dialogue about children. It also forms the basis of monitoring and pupil progress – but all this emerges from on-going, in-class assessment of learning mediated between teacher and pupil rather than the result of panicked assessment weeks, when teachers suddenly realise they need data; data that often emerges from sets of criteria given a level or score and that pupils are shoe-horned into rather than data the relates to directly to what  pupils can do, and with a good system, also informs everyone on what they need to do next.

As long as leaders remind themselves that data needs to emerge like this, then assessment has every chance of becoming a framework for learning, motivation, as well as evaluation. The Learning Ladders system we are developing at our school, along with a few other Lewisham schools, does this exceptionally well. However, this is in part because the data it produces is understood as an evaluation of learning, a means to get a picture of learning from different angles, and not as a motivator for learning. Tracking and assessment are understood to be different things, with different purposes.  If we go back to where I started, assessment is driven by the desire to enable pupils to become increasingly more independent and better learners rather than simply a means to improve learning. There is a difference. In the end though, a good system like Learning Ladders is only as good as the understanding of the people using it because assessment is at its best when it is understood as a pedagogy which improves learners, not just learning.

Authentic AfL: check!

teacher and pupil

‘Assessment’ is derived from the Latin verb assidere which means ‘to sit beside.’

For some time now I have had a nagging feeling that the true spirit of AfL (Assessment for Learning) is not always understood by teachers and schools. This is not to say that AfL strategies are not being used to help pupils progress; however, as Sue Swaffield (Senior Lecturer in Education at Cambridge) suggests, simply using AfL strategies does not automatically results in what she refers to as ‘authentic AfL’.

A long while ago, I began to feel like this over ‘success criteria.’ These days pupils having these is a routine feature of most lessons. These are the means for a shared understanding of what ‘quality’ means in relation to the learning intention. You share an exemplar and then together with pupils you tease out the criteria that signify quality in the exemplar. This is like saying ‘what makes a good adventure story?’ You read a really great one and then pupils take it to pieces and list the qualitative features. Then together you recreate those features through modelling and demonstration, which brings things to life for the children in real time: this is the exemplar, this is what’s good about it and this is how to get there. You can do this for almost anything and this is exactly how you pull pupils cross Vygotsky’s ZPD (Zone of Proximal Development): from a place where they couldn’t, to a place where they can.

However, if you’re not alert to the real message behind this process then this can become an increasingly dry procedure that eventually pacifies pupils – the antithesis of the AfL’s intent. The message this process should send to pupils is that whenever you set out to do something, make sure you know what a really good one looks like, know what the quality content is, break this down into manageable parts, then have a go at it. Then use this to check back and improve and go forward. In other words, teach pupils to look for the criteria for quality and to use this as a marker for learning. This is teaching them to be active, autonomous learners: the real promise of authentic assessment for learning.  Yet this is lost if the teacher misinterprets this particular strategy as ‘tell them what to do and how to do it,’ because if you do this enough times, pupils soon stop thinking for themselves. You’d be really surprised how quickly too!

The problem is that, as Swaffield describes, the complete obsession with progress and monitoring progress, as well as ‘test progress,’ expounded in the National Strategies, meant that many teachers and schools felt pressurised to ‘ensure pupil progress’…and not much else. This meant that in this dash for progress, teachers indeed enacted AfL strategies: they shared learning intentions by telling the pupils what they would be learning, giving out success criteria, then getting the pupils to use these as ‘tick lists’ against learning, but none of this changed them or their pupils as learners. In many cases, the use of success criteria became as close as doing it all for them as is possible without whipping the pencil out of their hand and writing in their books yourself. Just giving out success criteria without understanding the process behind it, or even giving out APP levelling sheets for that matter, is not AfL. This is not what AfL means at all because it does not teach pupils about the process of learning and change them as learners. Unless over time you change pupils as learners, AfL is not really happening. This is why I stopped printing out pre-prepared success criteria a while ago – now I leave a blank box for pupils to decide for themselves (after of course we’ve had a good look at a good one and discussed the quality features etc.). If they can’t jot down, or for younger children say, the key aspects of quality that should be in that blank box, as short key words of their own to remind them,  we go back to the exemplar and have a good think together again. This is shaping them as learners who take charge and are being guided towards understanding and owning the process of learning. I’m not interested in rushing this process through to get a nice ‘product’ in their books as evidence of progress either. We are constructing learning together and they are learning to, as Swaffield explains, ‘regulate’ themselves as learners: “I’m not satisfied if I don’t really know what I’m doing, I won’t  pretend I do either, I’ll go back and find out more, I’ll make sure I’ve got what I need, then I’ll have a go and make it my own!” Imagine if teachers ensured all children had these thoughts when learning rather than only ensuring they get as many ‘criteria’ ticked off as possible.

According to Swaffield, ‘assessment’ is derived from the Latin verb assidere which means ‘to sit beside.’ It does not mean, as she points out, ‘standing in front of’, ‘looking down on’ or ‘peering over the shoulder.’  As Dylan Wiliam says, ‘we should be making them work harder than we are,’ and he does not mean physically, he means as thinking agents!  AfL should change the way teachers see their role and should change the way pupils see themselves as learners. In turn, it should change how a school feels and enable teachers to see themselves as learners too: learners who check things makes sense for themselves before they go forward. They don’t just blindly accept new initiatives and dump them on children; they take them to pieces, check for quality then think about how to go forward. This is what Stenhouse urged teachers to be: professional learners!  In essence, AfL is about a huge change in school culture; it is not a just a set of teaching tools you can check are being used by carrying out a book scrutiny or a few lesson observations. AfL is a learning culture.

Of course, I have put this very clumsily here. Like most teachers I have little spare time in term time. I can only apologise to Sue Swaffield for ineptly trying to make sense of her excellent insights into AfL learning. But this really matters; especially now we can get away from all those levelling tick lists and APP sheets! Sadly though, if schools and teachers do not understand the real promise of AfL the new assessment system will become just a set of progress criteria to tick off, rather than a tool to activate and change learners. I’m glad to say, this won’t happen in my school.  I can only suggest you try to get hold of her paper, which I’ve listed below. Under copyright laws I can’t upload it here. However, I will finish with a list taken from her paper from the Assessment Reform Group. The list is important to me; it is a set of principles to guide AfL and I feel should be pinned up in the staffroom along with any assessment materials for the new curriculum:

  • AfL should be part of the effective planning of teaching and learning
  • AfL should focus on how pupils learn
  • AfL should be recognised as central to classroom practice
  • AfL should be regarded as a key professional skill for teachers
  • AfL should be sensitive and constructive because any assessment has an emotional impact
  • AfL should take account of the importance of learner motivation
  • AfL should promote commitment to learning goals and shared understanding of the criteria by which they are assessed
  • Learners should receive constructive guidance about how to improve
  • AfL develops learners capacity for self-assessment so they can because reflective and self managing
  • AfL should recognise the full range of achievements for all learners

(Assessment Reform Group 2002a, 2-3)

Swaffield, S. (2011) Getting to the heart of authentic Assessment for Learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, 18:4, 433-449.

New Primary Science Individual Assessment Ladders Years 1-6

I have put together these individual pupil assessment ladder sheets for Years 1 -6.  I envisage these being in the back of pupils’ science books/folders and used as a working public document open to pupils and parents to view and teachers to tick off etc .  It might be that an element of pupil/peer use could also be incorporated into their use – this would be a good long term goal…ultimate self assessment! This is very much in line with the whole assessment for learning agenda where there are no ‘teachers secrets’ i.e  ‘I know what you need to do, but you’ll only find out what it is and if you can do it when I tell you.’ This has defined poor teaching for too long.  Anyway, don’t get me started there….

Please let me know if these are useful and if you spot any errors!  Believe me, all that typing and tabling can be very tiresome!

Click below and enjoy!

Year 1 Individual Pupil Science Assessment Record

Year 2 Individual Pupil Science Assessment Record

Year 3 Individual Pupil Science Assessment Record

Year 4 Individual Pupil Science Assessment Record

Year 5 Individual Pupil Science Assessment Record

Year 6 Individual Pupil Science Assessment Record