The fool's gold of assessment

The last decade has seen an explosion in ‘data-mining’ in education. Arguably driven in part by external factors, school leaders have increasingly been in search of the elixir of the ‘right kind’ of data – the combination of assessment information which will unlock the holy grail of school improvement.

Robin Shakespeare, Director of Education at The Midland Academies Trust

The intention is of course correct – pupils have a right to the most effective education, and we should be straining sinew to make their experience better. The application has been variable, and as with everything relating to school improvement, the law of unintended consequences applies.

We were by no means an exception – a few years ago we had colour coded flightpaths, half-termly ‘data drops’ and much more besides. But the more information we had, the less it seemed to signify. And the less it did to improve the actual pupil experience. So we went back to basics.

In our Trust, the purpose of assessment is to inform the teacher about the impact of their teaching, and to make the appropriate adjustments to increase that impact. We design our assessments carefully and in collaboration with colleagues across the Trust, but we understand what they can show us – and more importantly – what it can’t.

Numbers on a spreadsheet are by themselves of limited utility to the classroom teacher. To my view, the most important part of marking these assessments is the sheet of paper the teacher has to one side, where they are keeping a running record of the common misconceptions, the areas of relative strength, the pupils who might need some specific support (and on what).

Of course numbers have their use in schools, as do forecast grades. Helping draw out patterns so middle and senior leaders can assign limited resources and support, as a shorthand for parents and for internal quality assurance, amongst others. These are important in themselves, but pale into insignificance compared to the primary purpose of assessment:

We assess so that we can understand how to teach the next lesson better than the one before. That’s it. Everything else is a by-product.

So as we enter our mock exam season, inevitably there will be a focus on the numbers generated. This year it is even more important than usual that we follow a clear process to ensure comparability of the data outcomes and forecast grades within and between our schools.

But teachers please make sure that you keep that sheet of paper to the side as you mark, and keep asking yourself this important question – what have I now learnt about the impact of my teaching, and what am I going to change next lesson as a result? To just look at the numbers is to be seduced by the fool’s gold of assessment – shiny and eye-catching to be sure, but not the real thing either.

Our Trust assessment standards

  1. Assessments must provide meaningful information
  2. Assessments must test subject knowledge, understanding and application.
  3. Assessments must be standardised within a subject across all Trust academies.
  4. Assessments must sample from across the entire subject domain.
  5. Assessments must test what is most important.
  6. Questions must elicit the most useful information about what students know.