The Future of Assessment for Learning

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Making Good Progress is an important book and should be required reading for anyone involved in designing, administrating or interpreting assessments involving children. Given the significant changes to the assessment and reporting landscape at every level, notably in the secondary context at KS3, this book is a timely read, and for my money it is the most helpful guide to designing effective formative and summative assessment models currently available to teachers.

I’ve heard Daisy speak at various education events over the years, and it is interesting to see how many of these individual talks have fed into the development of this book. Making Good Progress is a coherent and highly convincing argument for re-evaluating our existing understanding and approach to formative assessment and for moving away from the widespread practice of using formative assessment for summative purposes.

Life after Levels

From what I can tell, schools have responded to the abolishment of levels in three main ways. The first is business as usual, maintaining the use of levels – and thus ignoring the manifold problems associated with their misapplication – or recreating levels but in another name. Such amended approaches appear to recognise the flaws of levels and offer something different, but in reality too often they end up simply representing the same thing, changing numbers to letters or something else as equally fatuous. In many respects our first iteration after levels – the Elements of Assessment – fell foul of some of these same mistakes.

The second response to life after levels is the mastery-inspired model of assessment. In this approach subjects identify learning objectives for a student to master over the course of a year. This approach, which usually includes mapping out these myriad goals on a spreadsheet, appears more attractive in theory – what is to be learned is clearly articulated and not bundled up into a grade or prose descriptor – but in practice can prove equally unreliable and particularly unwieldy to maintain. Often the micro goals are watered down versions of the final assessment, not carefully broken down components of complex skills.

The final approach is the popular flight path model. This comes in various forms, but generally tends to focus on working backwards from GCSE grades to provide a clear ‘path’ from year 7 to year 11. I can understand the allure of this, and appreciate how such a model appears to offer school leaders a neat and tidy solution to levels. The problem is that learning is not this straightforward, and introducing the language of GCSE at year 7 seems to me to entirely miss the point of what assessment can and should be at this point of a child’s education – some five years before any terminal exam is to be sat!

As you read Daisy’s fantastic book, it becomes clear how all of these approaches to assessment are in one way or another fundamentally flawed: none of them really address the two underlying problems that ultimately did in for levels, namely the tendency for interim (or formative) assessment to always look like the final task, and for assessment to happily double up for formative and summative purposes. Making Good Progress destroys these widely held beliefs, albeit in the kind and sympathetic manner of a former teacher who understands how all this mess came to pass.

Generic Skill versus Deliberate Practice

In chapter five Daisy takes up what, from my experience, is the biggest barrier to improvement in the use of assessment in schools: how teachers conceive of their subjects in the first place. Daisy carefully unpicks the misconception that initial tests should reflect the same format as the final assessment. She outlines two very different methods of skill acquisition that account for how interim assessments are constructed – the generic skill method (where skills are transferable and practiced in a form close to their final version) and the deliberate practice method (where practice is deliberate and focused may look different in nature to the final version).

In the generic skill model, an interim assessment, such as a test of reading ability in English, will look very similar to the final assessment of reading at the end of the course, an essay or an extended piece of analysis in a GCSE exam, for instance. This approach, however, completely misunderstands how students learn such large and complex domains like reading, and prevents the opportunity for the interim assessment to be used formatively because it bundles up the many different facets of the domain and hides them in vague prose descriptors.

The alternative to this model, Daisy calls the deliberate practice model. Informed by the work of Anders Ericsson, this view of skill acquisition respects the limitations of working memory and recognises how complex skills are learnt by breaking down the whole skill into its constituent parts in an effort to build up the mental models that enable expertise. In this model very little, if any, practice tasks look like the final assessment. Sports coaches and music teachers have long understood the importance of this method, isolating specific areas of their domain for deliberate practice. As Daisy notes: ‘The aim of performance is to use mental models. The aim of learning is to create them.’

These two distinct approaches to skill development have a significant consequence for the design and implementation of assessment in the classroom. If you are a history teacher and you teach in accordance with the generic model of skills acquisition, you will tend to set your students essays when you want to check their understanding of historical enquiry. You may get the illusion of progress through your summative judgements, an emerging student might appear to become a secure student from one assessment to the next, but neither you, nor your students, will really be any the wiser of what, if anything, has improved or, more to the point, what needs to be improved in the future.

Another history teacher might share the same desire to teach her students to write coherent historical essays. This teacher, however, knows this is an incredibly complex skill that requires sophisticated mental models underpinned by a breadth and depth of historical knowledge. This teacher isolates these specific areas and targets them for dedicated practice. When she checks for understanding, she sets tests that reflect these micro components, such as setting a timeline task to show students’ understanding of chronology, or a series of multiple choices questions designed to ascertain their understanding of causality. Extended writing comes later when the mental models are secure. For now, the results from the tasks provide useful, precise formative feedback.

Koretz and Wiliam

For much of the book, Daisy draws on the work of Daniel Koretz and Dylan Wiliam to support her arguments. Koretz’s Measuring Up is another great book, which outlines the design and purpose of standardised testing and how to interpret examination results in a sensible way. Wiliam’s work is equally instructive, in particular his SSAT pamphlet Principled Assessment Design, which is a helpful technical guide for school leaders on designing reliable and valid school assessments.

Making Good Progress complements both these other works, and together the three books tell you everything you need to know about how to construct valid, reliable and ethical assessments. Like Koretz and Wiliam, Daisy considers the key technical assessment concepts of reliability and validity, and similarly exposes the uses and abuses of assessment, which she does in such a way that makes the need to assess better seem urgent and necessary. What it also offers, however, in particular through the deliberate practice paradigm, is the means through which to improve assessment and to link it to a coherent progression model of learning.

If I had one minor criticism of Making Good Progress, it would be that the closing chapters that outline this coherent model of curriculum and assessment are perhaps a little idealistic. Whilst the arguments for more widespread use of textbooks to support a coherent model of progression are sound, and the idea to create banks of subject-specific diagnostic questions for formative assessment purposes makes complete sense, the chances of either of these things happening any time soon seems to me rather remote. Both require significant agreement amongst teachers on the nature of their disciplines, some kind of consensus around skill acquisition (as Daisy notes herself, the generic skill method is pervasive) and for schools to systematically work together. Oh, and stacks of investment too. None of these things seem likely in the current education climate.

One much bigger criticism of the book, which I really must take Daisy to task about, is that it was not written several years earlier. Whilst I get that it may have taken her a while to formulate her ideas, and perhaps a good few months more to write them out, it still seems pretty remiss of her not to have co-ordinated better with the DFE. Had Making Good Progress been published in 2013 when the abolishment of National Curriculum levels was first announced (perhaps in a Waterstones 3 for 2 offer with Koretz and Wiliam), then I think that I, along with a number of other teachers, would have not wasted quite so much time and effort floundering around in the dark, trying to design something better than what went before, but often failing miserably.

Making Good Progress is a truly great read, and though its ostensible focus is on improving the use of formative assessment in schools, it covers a great deal of other ground in order to lay out the evidence to support the arguments. I enjoyed Daisy’s book immensely and commend it to anyone in the profession in any way involved with assessment, which is pretty much everyone!

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