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Assessment becomes more and more important by the day. School pupils are reminded constantly about the necessity of working hard and achieving good results and government statistics on those achieving 5 good GCSE grades seem to be rolled out month on month. Testing and assessment is of course important and there is no getting away from it in schools. Nevertheless, are we assessing in the most productive way? Is the constant push for better results actually having a negative impact on our students? In this blog I use History teaching as the basis for my observations, but I suspect that a teacher of any subject would identify with some of the problems and hopefully the solutions suggested.
In my experience I would argue that we have to very careful in the way that we assess students. When I working in the maintained sector there was a requirement to demonstrate which national curriculum level students in years 7 – 9 were at and also to demonstrate that they had progressed. Termly assessments were key as well as a formal end of year exam which, it was hoped, would show improvement. This system had its strengths, in particular it emphasised pupil responsibility and ownership in that they were encouraged to target areas for improvement (for example one of a range of historical skills). Furthermore, this reflective element really made students read teacher comments carefully and also fully understand what exactly they needed to do in order to achieve their next level, at KS3, or a higher grade at GCSE or A level. However, one needs to be careful with focussing too much on level descriptors as it can actually cause problems. For example, teachers end up making a best fit or ‘fits all’ judgement on a student’s work, indeed as Burnham and Brown (2004) point out the level descriptors do not chart progression and in fact are good for only a summative assessment at the end of an academic year. Student’s themselves can find level descriptors difficult to understand and also to see the point in them.
Furthermore, there is a case to suggest that with certain iterations of the A level and GCSE History syllabuses that it is possible to receive a high grade without actually knowing much historical detail; a point noted by Chapman (2011). Vague statements relating to ‘attempting analysis’ or ‘producing simple statements’ focussed mainly on skills and I am very thankful that new A levels now appear to be redressing the balance in terms of historical content.
Teaching to the test is also an area that many will be familiar with. Pressures from SLT, parents and governors mean that teachers invariably have to come up with more innovative ways of helping their students to achieve better results. I am guilty of this, increasing revision sessions and creating highly detailed scaffolding for students to follow in order to achieve the various demands of mark scheme level descriptors. Whilst this does achieve good results, there is always a nagging feeling that students may have been rather short changed. Particularly if we take our subjects from a purely academic perspective assessment of this type stifles the creativity, flexibility and eclectic nature of excellent teaching, moreover are we doing them and the student’s justice?
Burnham, S., & Brown , G. (2004, June). Assessment without level descriptors. Teaching History(115), pp. 5-13.
Chapman, A. (2011). The history curriculum 16 - 19. In I. Davies (Ed.), Debates in History Teaching (pp. 46 - 55). Oxford: Routledge.