Four guiding principles of a good assessment system

The confusion, debate and disagreements that have followed the move away from levels are necessary if teachers are to work out the best assessment system for their school

A “necessary stage of confusion” is how one commentator recently portrayed the move away from the national system of levels to monitor progress. It seems an apt description.

A fairly blunt instrument for assessment, levels could not take account of regional issues or the individual differences between schools.

Teachers, finally released from these shackles, are now working their way through “freedom from” the imposed levels into the “freedom to” stage, where they can seize the opportunity and choose whatever measure of pupil attainment and progress they feel is most appropriate.

The needs of the pupil should be the central focus

The current confusion, debate and disagreements that have resulted are, however, exactly what are needed to allow teachers to work out which is the best system for their school.

While schools navigate through this transition, some guiding principles will help teachers and school leaders shape the right system for them. Here are my four.

Do not lose sight of the pupil

Assessment is about helping the pupil progress. Therefore, the needs of the pupil (rather than the needs of Ofsted or anyone else) should be the central focus when creating any new system.

Careful planning is vital. Schools should free up time for subject heads or senior leaders to develop their view of what progress should look like for each school or subject.

Hinchingbrooke School in Cambridgeshire invited subject teachers to think about what makes a good historian, mathematician or linguist, and then to come up with a maximum of five assessment objectives for each subject.

The result was a simple, one-page summary for students of their assessment goals and how they performed against them. The summaries then doubled up as a road map for the year ahead, making it easier for both pupil and teacher to understand their next steps.

Assess the right thing

You can test a child’s progress in maths again and again, but you need to ask whether the results are differentiating between those pupils who are struggling with a particular topic and those that have an underlying issue.

The Newark cluster of schools has recently taken a wider approach to assessment,
looking at pupils’ attitudes to learning as well as more standard progress measures. They discovered that lack of self confidence was holding some pupils back. With this new insight, teachers could work on developing a child’s confidence to help them progress rather than work on their subject knowledge alone.

Too much is as bad as not enough

One response to the removal of levels is to “over assess” to avoid misjudging a pupil’s attainment. We must resist this temptation as we may overwhelm teachers with data and lose the ability to judge overall progress. You will not triumph in the Tour de France by endlessly stopping to take in the views.

Schools should take account of teachers’ observations when making judgments about progress. Where teachers lack confidence in their abilities, then CPD rather than more assessments will fill the gap. Perhaps a national programme of CPD is needed around assessment and data analysis, backed by an organisation such as the new Royal College or the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors.

Use data well

“Assess once and use the data often” is a good guiding principle. The North Liverpool Academy has a significant proportion of students with a lower than average reading ability, so all students’ reading is assessed as soon as they start at the school. The English department then shares this data with all subject teachers. Literacy is addressed as a priority across all lessons – not just in English – as the academy recognises that a child’s literacy levels will affect their progress across the board.

In my view, if we stick to these guidelines we will work our way through the debate more quickly and have an assessment system that meets each school’s needs.


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