5 ideas for low-stakes assessment at primary

How can staff assess young learners’ progress without adding unnecessary anxiety? Aidan Severs offers five ways to keep things simple

Aidan Severs

Children with their hands up in primary class

We all want to know what impact the past year has had on the children we teach. We’ve been living through a pandemic for a little over 12 months but it has actually eaten away at two academic years.

Many schools are understandably wary of dumping a load of tests on children who need even more consideration and kindness than usual. And the cancellation of SATs means Year 2 and Year 6 have more time than ever to get on with learning.

But it is still absolutely essential for us to assess children. After all, teaching is nothing without assessment.

So, how can we assess our children in a way that is humane, and actually results in information that is useful to teachers in their planning and preparation?

Here are some ideas for low-stakes assessment that may be useful over the next few months:

1. Teacher interaction

Assessing a child is about knowing them, and their particular strengths and weaknesses, against a set criteria (in this case curriculum objectives).

This requires not only knowledge of a child’s output but also an in-depth knowledge of what they are being assessed against. If a teacher can interact with children during a regular lesson, thinking about how they measure up to the relevant objectives, then the best assessment possible will be taking place.

Some teachers have fantastic memories and can take this information into planning sessions without ever putting pen to paper, whereas others will come up with ways to keep a written record of this information, whether that be notes scrawled in a notebook or an annotated objective tick list.

Either way, this approach means that every moment of every day is an assessment opportunity.

2. Review of class work

In the past, there has been a heavy emphasis on written feedback on class work, but a healthier expectation is for classwork to be reviewed by teachers before the next lesson. There is no need for the teacher to write comments, use marking symbols or annotate the work, nor is there a need for children to revisit the day’s work.

The main purpose of review should be to inform teachers of current attainment, based on output. This can then either be taken into consideration when planning and delivering follow-up lessons or can be used to help form a judgement on current attainment.

3. Conferencing

Much of what a child knows and can do can be ascertained through conversation. However, these discussions are not always easy to conduct during lessons.

If staffing allows, and if tasks are designed to allow children to work more independently, then teachers can take some time out to work one to one with children, finding out more about what they know and what they can do.

4. Quizzing

Low-stakes quizzing is often welcomed positively by young children. While quizzing may primarily be used to help children with the learning process (retrieval practice), it can also provide teachers with useful insights.

However, in order to ensure that it is truly low stakes, the quiz needs to be well designed and well pitched – it shouldn’t test untaught content.

And children shouldn’t be made to feel that a low score is going to disadvantage them in any way. They simply need to understand that doing regular quizzes can help them to remember things, and be sure to work through correct answers so they’ve got a chance of getting it right next time.

5. Questioning

Low stakes can also be achieved by reducing the amount of time an assessment activity takes.

Asking just one or two questions – even if they are exactly the same as the kind a child might find on a higher-stakes, summative test – can provide teachers with useful information about current attainment.

These questions and answers can be verbal or written, perhaps taking the form of an exit ticket, where children answer questions before they leave a lesson. Questioning can be responsive or pre-planned and, if done well, can give teachers exactly the information they need.

Aidan Severs is deputy head of a primary school in the North of England

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Aidan Severs

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