Can't stand the heat? Look for the light

Can't stand the heat? Look for the light

Assessment is a pretty hot topic at the moment. After all, parental action on testing is unusual in England. But while recently there's been a lot of heat, there hasn't been huge amounts of light. In a highly polarised '…are you for or against tests…' debate, there's a lot of important detail which has been overlooked. So it was good to be able to discuss the role of well-designed assessment with 100 teachers at the Frog conference in Birmingham.

Tim Oates Frog Blog shot of Tim and Mick Walker imageIt was good to be able to dispel the myth that we are '..the most tested system in the world…', whilst recognising that it is the accountability system which makes the few national assessments which we have weigh so heavily on the system. Teachers commented how useful it was to hear about the way in which Finland constantly uses tests designed outside the school to check on all pupils' progress, and to make sure that those falling behind are given targeted support.

We explored the way in which Shanghai teachers carefully select questions which probe understanding and stimulate thinking by pupils – 50 -120 questions per lesson, according to Lucy Crehan's penetrating work on Shanghai schools.

Far from being the villain in education, assessment needs to permeate day-to-day learning. But it does need to be of the right kind. Schools are still struggling with the move away from National Curriculum 'levels', but do understand the reasons why levels had become so dysfunctional. More and more teachers are reaching the same conclusion that a leading head expressed to me on the day of the announcement that 'levels' would be left behind: '…finally we can get back to looking at what kids know and can do…'. All the evidence from around the world really does suggest that if you look after the detail of learning, high scores on tests will follow.

Mick Walker (pictured in conversation with me, top right) and Frog are doing great work in supporting schools to put granular, analytic assessment in place, which – rather than being fixated on progress in 'levels' - helps teachers better identify gaps and misconceptions, allowing immediate support to be deployed. Fortunately we have exemplar schools such as Wroxham Primary in Potter’s Bar and South Farnham school, where levels play no role in excellent systems of stimulating, supportive assessment.

With care, we can rise above the noise, and work on assessment which is based on solid research.

Tim Oates
Group Director, Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

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