What makes great assessment?

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Almost 20 years ago, at the very tail-end of the last century, Professor Rob Coe published his Manifesto for Evidence-Based Education, in which he argued for evidence-based policy, evidence-based practice and the promotion of a culture of evidence.

“‘Evidence-based’ is the latest buzz word in education” he wrote in 1999. If the Chartered College of Teaching event, What Makes Great Assessment, is anything to go by, ‘evidence’ and ‘assessment’ are now hand in hand on the buzzword block.

The panel debate held in London on May 9 included an assembly of some of the great and the good voices in the world of evidence-based practice – a ‘magnificent seven’ of educational assessment.
The panel was chaired by Stuart Kime of Evidence Based Education and comprised of Alison Peacock from the Chartered College of Teachers, Daisy Christodoulou from ARK, Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment, David Weston of the Teacher Development Trust, Sarah Lee from Tarporley School and Rob Coe from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University.

The speakers focussed their discussion on the barriers to achieving great assessment and suggestions as to how educators can make assessment work for them and their students, offering their perspectives on three key questions:

  • What makes great assessment?
  • What are the current and foreseeable assessment challenges and uncertainties facing educators?
  • What action can the profession take to address these challenges?

The panel members represented a range of perspectives, from research to leadership, from policy to practice, and each were each given two minutes to share their views on each of the discussion questions.

Assessment is the servant not master of learning

Despite the panel members all being invited to speak from their differing perspectives, their arguments continued to overlap on the same central point on assessment: Great assessment, good assessment, or just plain old assessment must have a clearly defined purpose. It should be valid, reliable, accurate and dependable, and fundamentally it should measure what it is intended to measure.

Great assessment, stated Alison Peacock, ‘enables both children and teachers to understand what has been learnt and identifies specific areas where misconceptions have occurred or where more practice is needed.’

We need to make space to engage with assessment

At first glance, it might be thought that the ‘catch-all’ discussion questions may be the key to a Pandora’s Box of educational concerns, complaints and criticisms. Instead, it provided a well-balanced dialogue on both threats and opportunities.

The challenges discussed by the panel naturally included the new normal of sudden policy changes, the current sense of flux in the educational landscape and the fear that there is no foreseeable period of stability.

Teacher workload and the need for increased attention on professional learning were also discussed – improving assessment modules on teacher training courses, having trained assessment specialists in each school and assessment training for school leaders and inspectors. ‘If we want teachers to learn about great assessment’ explained Rob Coe, ‘we need an infrastructure for their learning.’

Accurate assessment is a common good

Rob Coe and his colleagues at CEM have been developing evidence-based assessments for more than 30 years, working with schools and teachers to improve outcomes for all students. Perhaps the current buzz surrounding assessment would have seemed unthinkable 30 years ago. Now the teaching profession is mobilising, attending assessment events, reading assessment research and following assessment hashtags on twitter.

Amidst arguments about whether assessment is, or should be, exciting or boring, this illustrious panel of experts’ suggestions for addressing challenges include: the use of technology to implement models of crowd-sourcing and comparative judgement, having a research agenda that has value for practitioners and ensuring mechanisms for effective professional learning around assessment.

Headteacher, Sarah Lee, explains ‘Great assessment is great responsive teaching. Assessment is inextricable from teaching, and the quality of one is dependent on the quality of the other.’

Assessment, Rob Coe emphasises, should tell you what your pupils know, understand and can do; it has to support teaching and learning and it should not be used to measure teacher or school performance for accountability.

The views of the panel are available in a free ebook: ‘What makes great assessment?’ produced by Evidence Based Education

Kime, S., et al. (2017). What Makes Great Assessment? Durham, Evidence Based Education.