5 top tips for sailing through assessments with confidence

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By Mark Frazer, Teaching and Learning Lead, CEM

In the early days of my teaching career, I worked for a fantastic primary school headteacher who always talked about triangulating assessment data.

She used this navigational analogy to explain the importance of cross-checking data sets to establish as true a picture of a pupil’s current situation as possible.

To be fair, triangulation is probably a slightly inappropriate analogy in the context of the classroom. Teachers should be comparing data from numerous sources, not just the two or three compass bearings a ship’s navigator would take to plot their position on a navigational chart. Teachers have a far more subjective task to perform.

A port in a storm

However, this navigational comparison could also be thought of as being a programmatic approach to assessment, as described in detail by a group of academics from the Netherlands and Australia.

Based on this programmatic approach, here are my top 5 tips which will help busy teachers to build a better understanding of their pupils.

  1. Develop a master plan for assessment in your school

This will be your navigational chart. It can simply be a timetable of what you intend to assess and when, throughout the school year. Crucially, it should make clear the purpose of your assessment activities, i.e., what do you intend to do with the information you collect?

Your master plan should include reference to planned formal assessments, maybe paper tests or computer-based tasks, together with regular reviews of exercise book, observational activities, or the collation of photographs of pupils’ work.

It is vital that all colleagues understand the content and timeframe for the various activities and are encouraged to act on the information they receive in a timely manner.

  1. Standardise your plan across the school

Since working for CEM, I have had the opportunity to visit numerous schools to talk about assessment.

In the most effective settings, there is a common approach to assessment which is followed across the school. This allows a pupil’s progress to be tracked from year to year and across different subjects.

I am not suggesting that assessment requirements are identical across phases and year groups, but consideration must be given to maintaining a sufficiently detailed overview as pupils move through school. Identifying consistent under-attainment and being able to take action where needed is what the process should be about. Pupils may fall off the radar screen if care is not taken.

  1. Talk to your colleagues about assessment

A vital, but often overlooked, routine activity is for colleagues to compare their notes with colleagues - another form of triangulation, perhaps?

Quite frequently this is referred to as standardisation or moderation, but this sometimes makes the process seem overly formal.

There is certainly a place for this in high-stakes assessment but, in terms of everyday classroom assessment, informal and regular chats with colleagues will allow perceptions and observations to be placed into a wider context.

In a navigational sense, this is like taking regular compass bearings to make sure that we are all steering in the same direction, each aboard our own vessels.

  1. Talk to your pupils about their assessments

Effective assessment activities should yield actionable information.

For example, following an informal mathematics assessment it becomes clear that a pupil in Year 4 may have confused two simple properties; it looks likely that they do not understand the distinction between finding the area and the perimeter of a rectangle.

Don’t ignore this little gem of information. Talk to the pupil as soon as possible, explain the issue and ask them to re-attempt the questions. It is too easy to think that you will address this at a later date. By doing so, you run the risk of forgetting. In the meantime, the pupil may have drifted further off-course and is continuing to compound the misunderstanding.

  1. Use the information you have gathered to inform curriculum development

You can analyse your assessment data in a manageable way using some simple steps and a few quick tricks.

For example, sorting a simple spreadsheet of assessment data by pupils’ overall scores in a test and also by the total of correct responses to each question will produce a table that includes an ordered list of the highest to lowest attaining pupils, and also the easiest and most challenging questions.

Doing this will not only help you to understand the ability range of your pupils, but it may also allow you to identify areas of the curriculum where a number of pupils appear to be encountering difficulty.

If you do spot a navigational hazard in your curriculum, use the evidence you have gathered as the basis of a conversation about how you can re-plan your teaching, or approach the problem from a different angle.

Knowing which way the wind blows

For many teachers, the realities of everyday classroom management and interactions with children have changed markedly over the past two years as adjustments have been made to minimise the spread of the COVID virus.

It is unlikely that this will have made the task of conducting formal and informal assessments any easier. In fact, it is likely to have made the task of informally observing pupils at work even more challenging.

Be certain of your planned course and take the opportunity to make simple and frequent readings and observations to check your pupils’ progress along the way.