Covid catch-up: how to assess the learning ‘gaps’

Using assessment to diagnose learning gaps is complex, says Rob Coe, but he says it needs to be done well if we are to have an impact

Tes Reporter

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Rob Coe – one of the leading education researchers in the world – is torn about the term “catch-up”, the phrase now widely used to refer to “lost learning” over the period of the pandemic.

Speaking on a new episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast (listen below) at the World Education Summit, he explains that, on the one hand, he sees the phrase as nonsensical.

“[It implies] that there is some meaningful standard of what we used to be able to do and…if we can get them back to that place then everything will be OK. But that was just an arbitrary place we happened to be; there was nothing special about where we happened to be,” says Coe, senior associate at the Education Endowment Foundation and director of research and development at Evidence Based Education.

Coronavirus: lost learning?

That said, he sees the benefits of having a “catch-all term” in terms of what schools are able to do next.

“If it is an opportunity to galvanise effort and energy into doing some things that are sensible – the extra money for catch-up, the National Tutoring Programme is a great idea, and so on – it feels churlish to say we should not treat this as a special case,” he explains.

Of course, any intervention is only useful if you actually know what you are trying to fix. And here, schools face a fiendishly difficult task: there is pressure to act quickly to identify gaps and act, yet proper assessment of any learning loss will take time.

It will also take a level of expertise in assessment that teachers will need assistance with, feels Coe.

Assessment in education

For example, much has been made of the wellbeing impact on any assessment – how do you separate poor performance in assessment owing to pastoral issues, and poor performance because the child does not know the content they are being tested on?

“Anxiety and [other non-academic factors] can interfere with how well someone does on a particular assessment and we could misinterpret that as meaning that they misunderstand the ideas, when they could understand them perfectly well – they just did not do well on that particular assessment,” says Coe.

“We can try and minimise those effects in the design and the delivery of the assessment. There is quite a lot we can do there, but it requires a lot of expertise to do that well. And I don’t think that is something you pick up on the job.”

Types of assessment

He adds that we need to have a broad view of assessment: it isn’t just a standardised test but small moments in the classroom. For example, responses to questioning, how a child is acting, analysis of written work and so on.

“If you look at what teachers do, there is a spectrum of different kinds of assessment on different timescales,” says Coe, explaining that this data should all feed into any overall assessment of a pupil and that this be done continuously: the judgement of where any child is at should be adaptable.

He believes that underlying all these assessments should be a crucial question that applies to assessment in general, not just catch-up diagnostics: what are you trying to achieve?

“The most important [thing about assessment] is the purpose,” says Coe. “Why are you doing that assessment? The worst thing you can do is invest a lot of time, energy and perhaps money in assessments that don’t actually give you the information you want, or don’t lead to you doing anything differently as a result.

“So what decision, action or choice depends on the results of this assessment? If I am in a classroom and I am using a hinge question mid lesson – that is a form of assessment – and hopefully I am clear what I am going to do differently depending on how they answer the question,

“Or if you are giving a generic standardised test of reading, say Year 4, why am I doing that? What am I going to do if I find that the whole cohort is behind where they were last year? If there is nothing that I am going to do differently depending on the results I get, then don’t bother doing it.”

When you have identified any gaps, it will be tempting to find an off-the-shelf solution to fix them. But Coe argues that the best thing for most children won’t be a flashy intervention but simply good teaching.

“Everyday classroom teaching, the quality of teaching…that’s the thing that makes the most difference to children’s learning,” says Coe. “And the problem with that is that there are no quick fixes. We are talking about expertise, the most complex job in the world, and getting slightly better at it. The idea that a bit of extra money or a wave of a magic wand can create a better system…there are things we can do at the margins, but the system-wide solution is to think really hard about teacher professional learning.”

The sort of professional learning Coe is talking about takes time and a sustained training effort in schools. That’s not particularly compatible with the rhetoric of fast catch-up coming from politicians: they want immediate results. So, how do schools balance the two things out?

“It is a difficult one. If you rush in too much…then you might spend a lot of time and energy doing the wrong things that are not effective,” says Coe. “But if you wait too long, you could do harm by inaction.

“The thing about teaching and education is that you can’t wait and say the evidence isn’t clear; we are not going to do that. The pupil in front of you, that is their only chance at school – you have do something with them, so you give it your best guess at what you hope is going to be the best thing.”

Doesn’t that run counter to what he said earlier about getting the purpose right and then ensuring time is spent on high-impact interventions only?

Coe believes we need to find a compromise. And it is one that individual teachers are going to have to navigate using their best judgement – ready-made answers on that balancing act are not going to come from research, he believes. On this, all anyone can ask is that teachers do their best, he says.

“Maybe it is not ideal; maybe with more skills, more resources more time, you could have done better,” he says, “but that often isn’t the case. Often, you have to do something now and do the best you can.”

You can listen to Rob Coe's full interview on the Podagogy podcast – just type “Tes Podagogy” into your podcast platform 

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