A phrase much heard among impressive heads of history that I have worked with is ”kicking rubbish data upstairs to SLT”.
This is not unprofessionalism; it is the desperate necessity of those determined to preserve academic integrity and to help students properly.
It is a sign of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party that is school assessment in England that scholarly heads of department should be forced to manage two parallel worlds – the real world of quietly working out what will actually help students to improve, and the phoney world where it is assumed that repeated summative assessments, quite unfit for formative use, should take over the language of the classroom, distort teaching and trigger the whole bureaucracy of “intervention”.
Worse, there is only so much Orwellian ”double-think” a sound mind can take, and it is driving some of the finest minds out of the profession.
How does one take on a whole generation of school assessment that has fallen down a rabbit hole? Daisy Christodoulou’s bravery and determination in doing just that deserve as much credit as her intellectual clarity. It takes courage to expose practices that have been well-intentioned and, where baselines were low, have secured improvement. For this book is no tactful tinkering with the problems; it is a devastating assault on the status quo and a call for a paradigm shift.
At its heart is an explication of the proper relationship between formative and summative assessment, and the damage caused by that relationship going horribly wrong. Underlying this is an account of means and ends in learning. If our aim is for pupils to write analyses of Shakespeare, build historical arguments, solve mathematical problems or play in a Beethoven quartet, then the last thing strugglers need is endless practice of those things in that final form.
At its heart is an explication of the proper relationship between formative and summative assessment
Most of the time, the final accomplishment does not resemble the means of its nurture. Just as footballers and athletes do numerous drills that look nothing like playing a game of football or running a marathon, so the building blocks of final academic or creative performance are small, painstaking and deliberate.
Total fluency, whether in muscle memory, factual memory or harmonic memory, is necessary if adequate memory space is freed to create and construe, to spot relationships or to build fresh argument. A pupil’s ability to infer or interpret, even to comprehend, is dependent on a broad range of knowledge and practice, most of which is not named or looked for in the final test itself – and nor should it be – but which is nonetheless critical to its fluent performance.
This is not to say that exposure to and participation in that final accomplishment are not vital, never mind inspiring and motivating. But attempted performance of that final accomplishment is a poor guide to what needs fixing. It also confuses one-off performance (eg, on an exam question) with secure learning. The progression model that will move pupils from their current state to secure performance will not be found by turning every lesson into an exam and doing a gap analysis.
Christodoulou explains exactly why summative tests are not designed for those kinds of inferences. Neither GCSE mark schemes nor level descriptions were intended to shape learning, and nor can they. This is why seeing schools finally abandon the long misuse of level descriptions as formative tools only to replace this with exactly the same mistake but worse, namely tracking back to year 7 with GCSE grades, is enough to make one weep.
My feelings on completing the book were admiration and relief. My admiration is at Christodoulou’s patience in painstakingly explaining the underlying problems with unstinting thoroughness. Her style is disciplined and austere. She avoids parenthesis, never mind self-indulgence. As for my relief, well, that is ineffable. If this book gets the attention it deserves, it will roll back over two decades of madness. There is life beyond the rabbit hole.