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. 

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.

Post-mortem or medical? Quality v quantity?

In thinking about feedback I really like Douglas Reeves idea that authentic feedback should be like a medical rather than a post-mortem. Like this, feedback shouldn’t be about what went wrong, but about how to get better. Focusing on what went wrong is the traditional transmission method of feedback where the teacher is centre stage, passing judgement on the pupil’s demonstration of knowledge acquisition. We know now this only widens the achievement gap, it makes low ability pupils shrink back and the more able ping forward – so for a while now we’ve known we need to turn around in the road and face the other way.

This is why ‘next steps feedback’ should really drive the new curriculum and any new assessment systems put in place. It is this kind of system that should govern summative assessment too, indeed even school tracking systems. In this way, the ‘where are they now’ snap shot is a moment in time that is looked in on, ‘snapped’ and then used to understand the field of play, and by this I mean children who are not locking into and benefiting from the next steps pathway.

Like this, a school tracking system should work for (not with) the next steps assessment system to create a strategic overview that can then drill down to groups or individuals who need more attention within the context of the whole school. In this way, a tracking system will support in-class assessment and support a teacher’s ‘aerial view’ of what’s going on. This is important because we’re really close up and personal in class aren’t we? Yet really, any teacher worth anything should know which individuals are not moving and making those next steps.

Systems like new Learning Ladders and Classroom Monitor seem to be on the right track here, but my one worry is the old quality v quantity problem. Some systems seem to try to provide next steps assessment pathways for anything and everything, which will mean stressed out teachers who get squeezed into a corner where they have to tick things they’re not really sure of because of time. This is what was wrong with the last system, overkill! Really, if we’re taking on a mastery curriculum we should take on a mastery assessment system too where less is more and we cut out what we can do without and focus on the vitals.

So, next steps: good; each and every next step: bad.  We need to be careful the accountability shadow doesn’t needlessly spoil it all and make us ‘panic assess.’

Anyway… just some quick thoughts on how it might just all fit together. You never know…it might just work!