Assessment: The journey so far…

traditional teaching

I often wonder why I’m so interested in assessment. Why I read about it in my holidays and feel perfectly happy tinkering and engineering my ideas about it all the time. It never feels like work. Well today, as I sit on a Greek island somewhere far away, I know why. It sounds too profound, too Hollywood, too idealistic, but to my mind getting assessment right will offer a great gift to our children. The gift will be to know themselves very well indeed; to look inside their own mind and understand themselves; to be deeply honest with themselves; to look towards quality and measure themselves against it; to work towards improvement because they know change is always possible; to see the change in themselves and to understand that improvement is always in their own hands. The right approach to assessment, throughout a child’s school career, has the potential to do this; it has the potential to make our kids strong people.

So, what about this year? How far have we travelled in this direction? Well, I think I can sum up this year as a time when we sought to close the gap, but this time, not just between what children know and need to learn, but at last, as an educational community we have thought about the gap between actual learning and all manner of ciphers for learning. In simple terms, this last two years have been about accepting fact that we’ve spent too much talking about units of measurement for learning rather than the learning itself. And in that mix, we often misunderstood assessment, or at least saw it only in one light, which was to act as a critical tool to hold ourselves and our teachers to account. I’ve no doubt that many teachers and leaders did recognise this and fought against the tide, but so many didn’t and perhaps still don’t.

Over the last two years, I’ve helped implement Learning Ladders, a new curriculum assessment system into our school, and supported some other schools to do the same. I consider assessment as a pedagogy, so that whatever we do we always remind ourselves that when we evaluate a child’s learning, we make sure that not only do we do something with that evaluation that benefits that child further, but we also do our best to involve the child in that process too, gradually drawing our pupils into evaluating their learning themselves and acting on that evaluation. I will always maintain that the best teachers seek to become useless to their pupils…eventually.

So now, where are we? What have we gained? What do we need to think about next? (I’m thinking both in terms of our assessment system and for assessment in general.)

The gains:

  • A large part of the educational community is taking charge, sharing ideas and practice. For example, look at the work of Beyond Levels and the #LearningFirst conferences. School leaders and teachers are coming together to share ideas and tease out the best ways forward for learners.
  • Assessment has moved away from being associated purely with data and tracking and is becoming increasingly associated with making an impact on pupils’ learning. Hurray!!
  • More teachers are being held accountable through the development of their pedagogical craft, with a view to improving learning (and learning behaviour) over time, rather than being held to account through straight forward numerical data, that may or may not accurately reflect a child’s journey towards academic progress. (I’ve just spent six months on secondment with a really challenging group of children, much of the progress they made was in their behaviour and attitude to learning; progress was certainly not always academic in some cases. Did I have any effect on that ‘progress over time’? Yes I did! Now they are well set up for next year when they will take off!
  • Senior leaders are able to lead teachers more effectively because gaps in pupils’ learning are easier to identify which results in more productive conversations about pupils’ progress. Our Learning Ladders system has a finely tuned gaps analysis tool so that when overviews of progress are looked at, conversations about why certain pupils are or aren’t making progress become very detailed about the aspects of learning in question. The result is really productive conversations about assessment, curriculum planning and pupil progress rather than those ones of the past where progress meetings were around levels or sub-levels and the details about pupils’ learning were not always foremost in people’s minds. We’ve discovered that being able to drill down to the granular curricular detail has meant that it’s much easier to pin point issues. Sometimes the issue might be teacher’s confidence in assessment; they’re just not sure about how to assess a certain aspect, it might be the first time in that year group and they’re finding their feet. Other times, it might be a teacher needs to refine and focus their planning a little more so they hit gaps in learning and at other times we might see that a child has been absent on the three times division and fractions were taught for example. This kind of depth of conversation just didn’t happen as easily with levels and for so many reasons.
  • School leaders can look at overviews of learning (which all leaders have to), but with Learning Ladders we have purposely not made inflexible bench marks or narrow progress thresholds for points within the year. Achievements in learning are noted on the system and accumulate through an algorithm into a score, but this is used as a measurement outline. This allows for the overview that school leaders need, because we have a traffic light score range based on a very general expectation of progress, but the  fact that it’s considered a range means that teachers focus on the learning rather than getting to a certain score;  plus, we have worked hard to make our assessment ethos mean that everyone understands the difference between ‘being seen to reach a level or a score’ and real progress in learning. These two were often confused under levels. Back then, moving up a level  assumed progress in learning, whereas now real progress in learning leads to an increase in the score. This might all seem like playing with words, but this is the whole impetus behind the idea of ‘learning first’… put the learning first and data will follow, but if you put the bench marks first, it might not.
  • Curriculum and assessment relate to each other in a cause (what do I want to learn) and effect (what did I learn) cycle rather than being loosely associated through summative assessment outcomes. This means that learning intentions are not merely derived from the national curriculum, but they are the curriculum. In the past there were two languages ‘curriculum’ and ‘assessment’ which meant that teachers had to translate the taught curriculum, into learning outcomes and then assessment judgments. Teachers no longer need to bridge the gaps between what is taught and assessment judgments because they are using the same language.
  • Teachers are more able to use assessment as a framework for planning because they are clearer on what children need to learn next and where there are gaps in children’s learning.
  • Teachers are able to access quality learning outcomes through shared learning moderation within our Learning Ladders group and soon these will be available to all on the system too. This means that the sloppy ‘best fit’ approach has been refined into a much sharper mastery approach for the detailed steps in learning. While I agree with many that the interim frameworks are far too demanding (that was my experience in Year 2 anyway), the Learning Ladders system means that the details required for a mastery curriculum to work well are exemplified. All assessment needs to be underpinned by shared images of quality and this should underline any decent assessment system.
  • After a year of everyone teaching the new curriculum, teachers are moving from using Learning Ladders as a ‘tick off tool’ to much more of a support for planning. Yes, we teach more than just the criteria on Learning Ladders because that is the basis for a broad and balanced curriculum, but that structure and mapping of the curriculum has been invaluable to support teachers mapping their way through all the changes.Teachers’ confidence in assessment and planning for it are now on the up!

Area of development:

  • The DfE interim frameworks don’t seem to reflect the key performance indicators considered appropriate by the rest of the education community. A lot of the guidance that goes with them is vague and open to many different interpretations. This has meant that teacher assessment is more difficult and less reliable as schools become more reactive to moderators requirements than authentic learning needs.Something isn’t right with those ITAFs! How many teachers have kicked themselves because they know that competent seven year old writers have had to be labeled ‘below expected’ because they didn’t do enough commas in a list or possessive apostrophes? This cannot be right.
  • 53% of pupils in the country reached expected in RWM the end of primary school. Really? Yes, expectations are higher, but pupils and teachers haven’t suddenly been knocked on the head so come on! Are we saying failure is a sign of success DfE? Schools need to plough ahead and make assessment work for their pupils; I know it’s hard – but we have to ignore this nonsense and follow our principles on assessment. We’re all in the same rocky boat of changing goal posts and incompetent management of national assessment from above, but we can still get on with doing what we know is right.
  • For some schools, assessment it still a vehicle for accountability much more than it is for learning. Leaders need to look at the progress over times in both hard and soft data and ensure this is aligned to authentic learning and not ‘ciphers for learning’. In other words, don’t set up a system that kids you into thinking all is well, when it isn’t!
  • Many schools still set children into ability groups and limit children’s learning through this approach. These schools need to trust learners and communities of learners and allow all pupils to reach their very highest potential; ability setting does not allow for this academically, socially or emotionally for pupils. Learning is not all about knowledge and skill acquisition.
  • Lastly, we have spent the past couple of years getting to grips with everything new, but we still need to move assessment more into the hands of pupils. Assessment is not complete unless it engages the learner into assessing themselves and moves them more and more towards independence. I think with Learning Ladders we have this in our sights. We have developed pupils’ overviews to summarise and see next steps, these have been very effective; next we need to refine these so they are easier for pupils to use regularly.  For me, this is the beauty of Learning Ladders, it is evolving to suit the needs of pupils, teachers….and leaders. This is the right away around, I promise you.
  • As always, I have to add that any assessment system can be used badly if the leaders running it don’t have sound principles on assessment; however, some systems encourage a certain approach that is modelled on the old levels system. No names here, but these should be avoided.

Final thoughts

I’m so optimistic that we can make assessment work for pupils in the UK, but we have to keep nudging the government our way and stand up for teachers in the classroom. Yes, we need to check teachers are doing the best by their pupils and then we need to check that school leaders are doing the best by their school communities, but as Mary Myatt put it so well, this must be through a culture of ‘High challenge and low threat’. The unwelcome consequences of a high threat culture in assessment mean that people then do things more out of fear rather than reasoned and deliberate action. High challenge, low threat always results in the best outcomes for pupils, teachers, leaders…and humans.

Some more ideas about assessment…


A few of my ideas about school assessment going forward:

  • Schools need to establish their own principles or ethos about assessment before they do anything! This means knowing why they assess pupils and what good practice in assessment looks and feels like for pupils, teachers and the school. Too many schools approach assessment as just another facet of school life. It isn’t! This is because evaluating learning, understanding if learning has happened and what is done with that information is at the heart of education.  Schools must have their own ethos on assessment…or get one! Too many schools are just signing up to new assessment systems that promise to solve everything without understanding what they really think and feel about assessment first. Really, this is all about shifting thinking away from the organisational detail around assessment and moving towards a holistic viewpoint on it that will guide decision making on the detail to come. 
  • Current progress is what Ofsted are most interested in rather than old trends and last year’s results. This means a system has to support progress pathways so that teachers and pupils are really keyed into what comes next. This needs to be visible in the books too so that pupils are pointed towards what comes next through feedback and, importantly,that this is acted upon. So marking everything is a waste of valuable time, but ‘deep marking’ makes more sense. Less is more! – by now I think this is obvious to everyone. (Although I still see teachers sometimes trying to mark every piece of everything when most of it will never be seen again. Do they have an ethos on marking and feedback to begin with? Do they know why they’re doing it?).
  • For me, first and foremost, an effective assessment system should have an impact on pupils’ achievement (assessing with levels didn’t mean this always happened). Assessment should mean both pupil and teacher should know where they are, where they need to go and how to get there (I know for many this is old hat, but you’d be surprised).
  • An assessment system should help teachers to plan what to teach next by having clear progression on curricular content.
  • It should relate directly to curricular content using simple language pupils understand and are eventually able to use to assess themselves by.
  • This clarity and simplicity should then allow teachers to go beyond the curriculum into broader areas of interest to pupils and themselves.
  • An assessment system should over time increase pupils’ independence and self managemement because it allows teachers to be clear on next steps and supports teachers and pupils identifying what quality in learning looks like. If you don’t get the link between good assessment like this and independence, imagine having to walk to the shops and having no idea what shop it is or how to get there. Now imagine the same walk if you know which shop and how to get there – you’re more confident and certainly more independent because you won’t get lost and have to keep stopping to ask people where on earth you are. This is why effective assessment will change mind sets and learning approaches for life. No one will be happy routinely going for a walk to an unknown destination; learners will get into the habit of taking control. (I know some people might want to throw in here something about creativity and the benefits of not knowing where learning will take you sometimes… Yes, true, sometimes exploration takes you to new destinations you might have missed – but let’s also get real about how to help kids progress well please.)
  • It should be easy for teachers to record any assessment information and the quality of assessment should be supported by regular moderation and dialogue about quality between teachers. We don’t know everything and should be allowed to say so and share ideas!
  • Overtime, it should decrease record keeping, data analysis and report writing work for teachers so they are freed up to focus on sound assessment techniques and understanding quality outcomes.
  • It should provide a framework for teachers and schools to collaborate together in exemplifying and agreeing quality in learning. 
  • An assessment system should support a range of assessment approaches in class that inform teachers of what to do next. This way formative assessment practices lead the way and dominant the school’s pedagogy. Even summative tests are used to tell teachers what to do next.
  • Any resultant data is merely capturing where learning is at a point in time. This capturing, or stopping to look at ‘data,’ should be infrequent and when used should inform teaching, and advise leaders how they might support their teachers rather than be used to judge teacher performance.
  • Having data expectations should be handled with great care because of the danger of fitting children’s learning into numbers for the sake of reaching given thresholds. Schools need to tread carefully between having high expectations for all pupils,  setting targets and children’s learning trajectories. If teachers feel under a lot of pressure to get pupils to ‘a number’ then schools actually put learning at risk; however, some way of describing and evaluating expectations is still necessary. (Schools who say they don’t need numbers are just not being honest -having an overview of learning is necessary; data is not inherently evil just because levels went wrong).  As I’ve said before: good assessment practice precedes good assessment data! Schools need to develop an ethos where teachers are dedicated and highly motivated in trying to close learning gaps for pupils rather than simply motivated to reach ‘that number’ (or previously, level).  There is a profound difference between these two approaches which schools must acknowledge and deal with. The dealing with it brings me back to my first point:  teachers and schools must have solid principles to begin with. Why are you here? What do you want for these little people? What is the best way to achieve this?

So, a little pre-holiday  blah, blah, blah from me. I hope it’s useful. 

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.

Soft targets and hard facts


This week I’ve been thinking about the relationship between soft and hard data, how we value these as educators and how we manage and even measure both.

Soft data (descriptive information rather than numerical) is what we swim through every day as we go about school; this is in the outlook and behaviour of the pupils and staff: how they feel, how they work together, the feel of the people and the place. This is highly valuable information, it’s the kind of information you can sniff the minute you walk into a classroom or a school. When all of this is running smoothly, then the ground for learning is ready, waiting to be planted.

Then again, if relationships are poor; if attitudes to learning are poor and pupils are unsettled, then the foundations for learning are unstable. This is why working on improving soft data is so important and really underpins school improvement, which is then defined and measured using ‘hard’ numerical data that measures learning, whether it be in levels, points or percentage of achievement (in fact what you call it doesn’t matter that much).  And whether we like it or not, schools are judged on quantitative performance data and so are school leavers, so unless the system changes, we have to work within the structure we find ourselves and ensure both the quality school life and quantity of successful learning are driven along.

It is unlikely we can ever avoid having to measure learning numerically because we need to ensure children are progressing and progress is more easily shown to others and understood if it is quantified. These hard numbers should equate with how much children have learned, and this, as we know in the end, profoundly defines their life chances. No educator can ignore the fact that pupils who get left behind at primary school get left behind at secondary school and then get left behind in adult life. And it goes further: adults with poor numeracy and literacy skills are overall less healthy and live shorter lives. Quality of life is directly related to the quantity of successful learning.  So this is why all that progress in soft data needs to lead to progress in hard data. It is all very well having smiling happy children, creative lessons and displays and bubbly staff – of course we need these and we should have these, but if this has no impact in raising achievement and attainment then school leaders are not serving the children properly.

Improvement in attitudes, behaviour and relationships in schools need  to lead to improvements in learning and they will do if leaders support teachers in understanding where pupils need to go next in their learning. Next steps are the key to all that hard data. This sounds simple, but so often it turns out not to be. All too often, it is assumed that calling a learning task ‘a challenge’ is enough to make it a challenging next step when this can only be ensured if the task causes new learning. What challenge can then sometimes mean is more of the same or ‘same learning different activity,’ which then results in slow progress in schools rather than the rapid progress some schools need in order to ensure those life chances for pupils are within reach. Like this, teachers need support in being forensic about those next steps for pupils. This cannot be left to chance, or the idea that if you teach more, pupils just learn more. Teachers need help with this because they are overworked and spinning every plate you can imagine.

The best teachers know they need to know what the next steps for pupils are. They understand they need to know this. They understand they need to know the next steps in general, over the course of a topic or strand, but also they know this within each lesson and then individually for each child. However, teachers do not know every small next step in learning all of the time. How could we? We’re humans, we’re not walking computers.

Strangely, it is thought that the second a teacher qualifies they will naturally know the curriculum inside out and understand each little step to success in learning it all. Teachers know they don’t know this, (or worse kid themselves they do). Teachers feel guilty about this and worry about this; teachers worry about whether anyone will ever find out that we don’t know it all.

Many teachers go about carrying this heavy burden and many leaders go about in the mistaken belief that teachers know all this and indeed should know all this when all anyone needs to do is provide teachers with direct access to the progressive small steps in learning that pupils need in order to progress.

This is where clear and concise systems in school to support teachers are crucial and they cannot be left to chance, or pure assumption. At the same time, teachers needs to be invested in and feel happy with these systems too, rather than overloaded with ridiculously long tick lists or deadlines to summit wordy planning to faceless inboxes, or folders where none of it will ever be read. I don’t know a single teacher who wouldn’t want to teach the right thing at the right time to a child and move them on. Hard work and willingness are not the issue at all.

What teachers need is a simple system to help guide them, where learning intentions are broken down into small steps. They need more than a curriculum roadmap; they need steps along each street too. This is what they need to support their use of assessment for learning and allow them to fly as teachers. Seemingly talented teachers can produce engaging, pacy lessons which leave people in awe, but if these next steps are stifled by ‘performance’ or ‘activity’ it’s really just hot air. On the other hand, you can get quite dull, didactic teachers, but who have a clear focus on what’s next for each pupil and provide for that – really they are doing a better job for the kids.

The truth is, that good teachers, those who really click with the kids and really improve all that soft data, still need support in knowing what to do and it should not surprise, worry or humiliate anyone that this is the case. It’s a bit like an athlete who works on his fitness and diet, but when the running comes, he needs the route mapped out so he can just focus on what he does best. Teachers need systems to support where they’re going otherwise they might just keep running and never get to the finish line.

So, after all this rambling, what I’m really trying to say is that leaders need to check up on the relationship between the soft descriptive data and the numbers on the tracker. The numbers on the tracker need to relate to real steps in learning for pupils in class. Teachers need simple, easy to use systems in place to know what comes next for each child. And finally, soft data has to translate into hard data about learning because in the end that’s what schools are here to do.

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.

Further reflections on living without levels…

After reading the NAHT report on assessment. I have some reflections on their recommendations:

‘The review process should involve every school identifying its own learning and development needs for assessment.’

This means that schools should think carefully about what is working well for them and what isn’t or hasn’t. For example, if descriptive learning ladders have been working well to inform teachers, pupils and parents about learning and next steps, then these are something to take forward rather than scrap. If there has been a weakness in teacher assessment, an apprehension in determining attainment, then that’s a weakness in teacher confidence which needs developing through more frequent and  enhanced moderation.

‘Pupils should be assessed against objectives and agreed success criteria rather than ranked against each other…’ 

As teachers we need to take this AFL axiom and really follow through with it in the classroom at a much deeper level. Ability grouping is also ranking your pupils; fixed, grouped differentiation is also ranking your pupils. These ‘Victorian’ practices need flushing out of the system. We also need to take a long, hard look at how we subtly rank pupils in our heads too and wake up to how low expectations produce low outcomes. It’s time to stop paying lip service to these pedagogical truths about ability and really act on them. Look at the Hattie evidence on ability grouping and wise up to Dweck too!!

‘Pupil progress and achievement should be communicated in terms of descriptive profiles rather than condensed into numerical summaries (although schools may wish to use numerical date for internal purposes).’

The ‘comment only’ concept, asserted by the likes of Black and Wiliam works, so we should make this the central theme in the potential ‘Assessment Spring’ that lies before us.  Humans have a natural ego-orientation which will easily become the ‘seat of assessment’ if it is allowed to. Therefore as educators we need to support young learners to be task orientated instead. We need to stop giving young learners the evaluative messages of grades and numbers and direct them towards what needs to be done!

This should also trickle down to a much deeper sense of how feedback works (or doesn’t work) on the ego. We need to stop giving children the implicit message they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ with ticks and sentiments of  ‘well done,’ ‘good work’ or ‘not enough effort’ and give them feedback for learning which focuses on the task and the steps in learning. The truth is, that while you might think saying ‘good, well done’ to a child is feedback, it isn’t if they don’t know what your referring to, and most of the time they won’t unless you are very specific.

I would urge teachers to spend just one session filming themselves and see exactly who you say things like ‘good, well done to’ and who you might frown at in disappointment.   The reality is that it’s almost always the same people who get the same treatment and that’s because we might not be providing them with much more than judgements on who they are by this kind of feedback.  My experience is that all children want praise and to be successful; the reason they aren’t is almost always because they don’t really know how to, despite the fact that they might make you think they do.  So…this comment only theme is so much more profound than just a being a new fad in marking; if teachers get to the bottom of this it will make a difference to many children and very quickly.

‘Schools should identify an assessment lead, who will work with other local leads and nationally accredited assessment experts on moderation activities’

It is certainly about time schools stepped up and took control of assessment instead of having it ‘done to them’.  Schools needs to be driven by assessment for learning and collaborate with each other continuously.  A Head of Assessment for Learning should not be the person who simple holds the key to the Sats cupboard or punches in data – Head of AFL needs to be a person with their finger on the pulse, out there talking to other schools, sharing the success criteria of what successful learning looks like across the curriculum and ensuring that this runs through the school. This also needs to be done both horizontally and vertically so that we no longer have the mistrust between different stages in schooling. Building pictures of learning through moderation, dialogue, exemplars and portfolios will mean teachers are clear on what success is because they have not always been; it has only been assumed we all think and understand the same way when we are as subjective about things as any other human. The profession needs to take hold of this elephant in the room now and support its teachers.  This is the only way schools will avoid the variability and inconsistency in assessment that plagued the leveling system.

‘All those responsible for children’s learning should undertake rigorous training in formative, diagnostic and summative assessment, which covers how assessment can be used to support teaching and learning for all pupils….’

Training in assessment has never been more important and this also refers to all support staff who help children learn too. Supposedly the government will provide support and resources for assessment, but I think schools should come together on this and share good practice. We need to be careful we don’t go backwards and use lots of  ‘on-line’ exemplars and ignore the wealth of expertise and knowledge among us.

‘The use by schools of suitably modified National Curriculum levels as an interim measure in 2014 should be supported by the government. However, schools need to be clear that any use of levels in relation to the new curriculum can only be a temporary arrangement to enable then to develop, implement and embed a robust new framework for assessment. Schools need to be conscious that the new curriculum is not in alignment with the old National Curriculum levels.’

We might have finally got to grips with using ‘levels for learning,’ and even parents started to understand them, but we just have to wave them goodbye.  We might start the year with levels, but it’s clear that schools who hang on to them have every chance of getting themselves into a right old pickle!  In Autumn, ‘performance descriptors’ will be released and these will be there to assess against – I imagine these will be just like the old descriptors for levels, remember those paragraphs of levelness? The new ones will have slightly different content of course and refer to key stage expectations.  There is also the year group content which can be turned into learning ladders creating a separate assessment criterion for each aspect. I imagine it’s these documents that will be working documents used by teaching staff and shared with pupils and parents.  There seems to be a preference for the working towards/meeting or exceeding judgements rather than just a yes/no.  The hurdle is then turning these into something numerical that can be tracked for progress on a spread sheet – this is now everyone’s problem….

These recorded judgements can be translated into numbers, which can then be analysed and used for prioritising. Traffic lighting is a popular method for monitoring. The most obvious method to generate a ‘colour’ or status is to count the proportion of the relevant year’s criteria that have been met at that point in time…

And this is where inter-school moderation/dialogue will be important to determine that proportion… How many to hit amber and green etc and how that translates into numbers, but essentially it seems up to schools to come to this themselves. If they do this well, then Ofsted have to use this data  to look at the school’s achievement and attainment using their own system. If the system is wobbly though…they’ll have you for not being able to show achievement and attainment at different stages and for different groups.

All in all there is much work to be done, but I’m optimistic that in the end this will be better for the children, as long as schools think deeply about the thinking behind assessment for learning and are given the time to tinker with it, and in turn give time for teachers to tinker also! Time to tinker!


Four foundations for authentic assessment ….whichever tick list you use!

Whether or not you want to keep levels or not (you’ll have to use something involving numbers somewhere) there are four foundations, like four sturdy corners of a building, which will make any kind of assessment effective and meaningful. Whether or not you pay oodles of money for a whole new tracking system with lots of fancy coloured charts and graphs, or whether you merry along with levels for a while, or you spend time linking old levels to new year group attainment criteria, (what a minefield) unless you have these four foundations established in your school your assessment system will be partial and only semi-effective. Also, those summative assessments we punch into the tracker, they wont be as good either! And whether we like it or not, we have to show numbers eventually and everyone prefers them if they are on an upward trend and high!

If we accept that a numerical measurement of learning is limited and often limiting, we should also
accept that assessment is also the backbone of education. Teachers can try all sort of new initiatives, strategies and enterprises, but unless formative assessment is at the forefront of their practice anything they do remains akin to shooting arrows at a target while blindfolded. Sometimes you’ll get lucky – but mostly you’ll miss! Incidentally, fanatics of any kind are those who lose sight of their aims, but put in twice the effort, and I would suggest that if teachers do anything these days they should always make their aim to effect learning before anything else. When educators ask themselves ‘how does this effect learning?’ then whether things are worthwhile become clear.

Now, what then are these four foundations of assessment? Essentially they are common sense cornerstones which enable assessment to work. Assessment for learning (AFL), pupil voice, learning to learn (L2L – a language of learning) and relationships are what drive really effective assessment and in turn learning. I came across the concept of the first three while reading Dylan Wiliam some years ago, but I have added the fourth – relationships, because while pupil voice might account for some aspects of this area, relationships between teachers and pupils, teachers and leaders, teachers and parents usually decide whether a school has a chance of being effective or not regardless of everything else.

AFL foundations


If we start with AFL, we know now that the best assessment feeds learning for teachers and pupils. Pupils are clear about where they are and what they need to do to improve through effective questioning and feedback; they know where they are going through the explicit sharing of learning destinations or outcomes and they know how to get there through effective modelling and exemplification of success through the use of success criteria. There is robust yet simple feedback and marking system that everybody knows how to use so that there is a continuous two way communication system between pupils and teachers where next steps are clear and pupils are always given time to respond to these. There is also a healthy sense of urgency about this process, it’s in quick time so that connections aren’t lost, but exploited to their maximum. Every part of this is enabled through teacher, peer and self-assessment so that pupils come to understand themselves and their peers as resources for their own learning. Everything moves away from a centralised, teacher-led classroom to a dialogic, robust pupil dominated learning environment. This isn’t pupils running riot, (sorry Daily Mail) but pupils owning their learning and taking control of it – contrary to old fashioned ideas, when pupils feel in control they feel confident and when they are confident magical things start to happen. Engagement and challenge are high because through this system learning becomes personalised. Thanks to the work of Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black, these AFL practices are common now and need little more explanation.

Pupil Voice

The trouble is that AFL can only start to work when other things are already in place and having a strong sense of pupil voice in a class and school forms the basis of AFL. If pupils feel a sense of agency and self determination they start to realise that what they think and do really matters to teachers. Who do you remember fondly from your school days? Who did you learn most from? It was the teacher who you felt wanted to hear what you had to say. However, pupil voice doesn’t just happen, schools and teachers need to work at it. Tokenistic ‘have you say’ moments won’t be enough, nor will a nominal school council which amounts to little obvious change. Pupils need to see that their opinions matter and are acted upon. The message is that ownership of learning is precipitated by tenure of the environment surrounding pupils so that feelings of belonging and responsibility are firm. If you make a child really feel that ‘this is my place, I matter,’ you will see a level of responsibility and seriousness about learning like never before.

Classrooms where pupils aren’t allowed to decide much at all, and teachers directs every move, mean that pupils will feel less in charge of themselves and that’s the opposite of what AFL requires. To add to that, in the years I have taught, I have never ever found that giving children more responsibility has resulted in them being less responsible – never. Like this, true and authentic assessment relies on pupils taking responsibility for it themselves as much as they can.

Learning to learn – L2L

This is the third building block, for without a language of learning, pupils can’t talk about their learning with the depth or richness that will make peer, self and teacher assessment have impact. Pupils need to get to know about the mechanics of learning, then just like someone who knows a bit about car engines, when it breaks down (which it often  does in learning because that’s the nature of it) they can jump out, fix it and get on the road again.  Learning is emotional and pupils need to be able to talk about learning experiences and unravel them. This is what makes children expert learners who are able to negotiate around obstacles and recognise when things aren’t working and why they aren’t working. When pupils have the chance to meta-cognise about their learning they are able to recall things they did that worked well and approaches that didn’t. They learn what words like ‘focus,’ ‘concentration’ and ‘understanding’ really mean. We use these words everyday don’t we in school? But how many times do we ask a child what they know about them, what they really mean to them? Having a classroom with a ‘learning orientation’ (to borrow the term from Chris Watkins) is to have a classroom where learning is on the table and conversations about learning are common. Ensuring pupils learn how to learn means that the feedback given to learners is effective because they understand how to use the feedback in a much richer way.


The relationship between pupils and teachers are really what underpins all of the above. If a pupil trusts their peers and teachers they won’t mind making a mistake. They will understand feedback is for learning and will use it to improve. If there is a whiff of being made to feel small because you got it wrong in a classroom – learning seizes up like a rusty machine. Pupils stop thinking in an environment like this and just start to try to survive. They try to survive by either staying quiet and disappearing, or they start to clown around to displace the focus on learning (because learning is too scary).

If you set pupils against each other in ability, so there is an implicit pupil ranking in your class, then relationships  are all about looking up to or down on each other. It’s an uncomfortable environment – a nervy place. How can you learn and thrive if you think you’re not that good? How can you really learn if you think there’s nothing much to learn either because you’re top dog? Relationships are vital in learning. Pupils need to trust each other with their defeats and victories, they need a brother and sisterhood between themselves and  protection and care from their teacher. Everyone is a supportive resource for everyone else.

But relationships don’t stop here. Teachers needs to feel like this too otherwise they won’t learn either. Just like a child will close down and try to survive if a teacher is waiting in judgement, so will teachers if their peers and leaders are like this. Trust must permeate everywhere.

If you know it doesn’t work when you rank and put your pupils in a pecking order against each other, then why would it be different for teachers? What do teachers look at on observation feedback forms – the list of comments or the grade at the bottom? And how do they feel when people stand over them with a clip board and a pencil watching every move? Just like a pupil does – awful and unable to be themselves. Does this scrutiny help their performance? No. Does it help them learn? Very rarely.  However, if you put a bunch of teachers together to share and talk about good practice, do they learn then? Yes they do and a lot!  So if you know pupil voice and learning to learn work with pupils – ensure the same is in place for teachers. Give them a voice in your school and a language of learning too and you’ll have teachers who feel valued and want to improve all the time. Which head teacher doesn’t want that?

So – all this is a long winded way of saying that effective assessment needs more than a few fancy success criteria and different coloured marking pens. It needs an ideology of learning behind it and an understanding of the psychology of learners as people with self-esteems and emotions. Effective leaders will establish and support on these four areas in their schools so that assessment and learning thrive.