4 reasons to 'set teachers free' by changing assessment

Study reveals how teachers tired of collecting 'data for data's sake' have begun to innovate in assessment
1st December 2020, 12:01am
Amy Gibbons


4 reasons to 'set teachers free' by changing assessment

Schools Are Finding Innovative Ways To 'set Teachers Free' From The Assessment Burden, New Research Shows

High workload, a lack of staff and too much emphasis on "data for data's sake" are driving teachers away from the "status quo" of assessment, a new report suggests.

The study, compiled by exam board Pearson and think tank The Centre for Education and Youth (CfEY), shows that it is possible to "set teachers free" by building their expertise, so assessment becomes "empowering rather than constraining", according to education adviser Mary Myatt.

The Making Waves: a better future for assessment report explores the way teachers have been trialling different approaches, driven by a range of factors - from a desire to help students to learn independently, to the need to address teacher workload.

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The findings have been published following two years of work involving schools in England, New Zealand, Australia and Canada.

The study looks at the nitty gritty of exactly how and why schools and education systems have innovated in assessment and when and how the change works best.

It covers everything from a Sussex secondary that used a cross-school Assessment Innovation Team to introduce change, to the use of feedback from an artist in an after-school club and the use of online assessment tools in physics and maths.

The research also analyses what is driving schools to change their approach to assessment.

"Some of the time these were framed in positive ways - a desire to find new and better pedagogical models or to empower students to learn independently - but in most cases they were more responsive, seeking to tackle perceived pain points, such as an unmanageable workload," it adds.

The study found that some of the main factors driving teachers away from the status quo included:

1. Poor quality of assessment

Schools in England frustrated with the current system wished to "move towards 'assessment for learning'", the report says.

"In England, teachers, schools and [multi-academy trusts] MATs are often dissatisfied with the quality of assessment," it adds. 

"Many want to see a closer link between the information that assessment provides and the actions it prompts.

"This makes some of the innovation that is currently taking place a natural continuation of longstanding efforts to move towards 'assessment for learning'."

Professor Rob Coe, senior associate at the Education Endowment Foundation, said: "When teachers develop specialist expertise in assessment and are appropriately supported, they can find space and agency to innovate, replacing ineffective and soul-sapping rituals with assessment that genuinely drives pupils' learning. These teachers are energised and enthused, addressing both wellbeing and workload."

2. Too much data

One academy trust participating in the study complained of schools "drowning in data".

"Lack of assessment expertise combined with extensive data collection could lead to what was described in the Midlands as 'data for data's sake' and in Victoria, Australia, as a lot of time (being) wasted 'weighing the pig' and producing data that is not reliable, valid or comparable," the report says.

Robin Shakespeare, from The Midland Academies Trust, added: "Schools are drowning in data, much of which adds unnecessary complexity and burden to busy teachers' lives, so we've given data drops the boot."

3. High teacher workload

"Workload in schools has spiralled out of control and this is pushing teachers out of the profession at an unprecedented rate," according to the study.

"Our 2017 report, Testing the Water, showed that assessment is often linked to excessive workload, and many of the innovations we studied responded to an urgent imperative to reduce teacher workload," the report says. 

"In other cases, a key design principle was that any change should not add to workload. Innovators also sometimes distinguished between 'worthwhile' and 'less worthwhile' workload, arguing that what mattered was ensuring teachers spent less time on unproductive or meaningless activity. This sentiment was echoed by our advisory group."

4. Lack of staff in shortage subjects

Additionally, some schools and academy trusts selected their approach in response to "struggles in securing the workforce they needed, particularly in subjects like maths and physics", the report says.

"Technological solutions might therefore be one way around the assessment challenges staffing difficulties can cause," it adds.

It quotes one head of physics as saying: "The main thing was the lack of stability in the teaching staff, because there were lots of changes, you would have a lot of people coming in, and you wouldn't know what assessment had taken place, you wouldn't know how well the students had done.

"You had no real overview. So, from leading a department point of view, I just needed to get a handle on good feedback."

Reflecting on the report as a whole, Ms Myatt said: "Making Waves shows that it is possible to set teachers free by building their assessment expertise so that assessment becomes empowering rather than constraining."

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