Effective assessment for learning: a guide

Rag-rating worksheets may feel like good self-assessment, but they need to be carefully managed to be useful

Henry Sauntson

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I once worked with a colleague who, despite appearances, had no personal confidence whatsoever.

One day we were talking about self-assessment (a big focus for my then-school in the late 2000s).

I’d been at secondary school in the 1990s and had vague memories of occasional attempts at this sort of thing, none with much success or impact on me.

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My colleague’s memories were clearer; she was too embarrassed to ever rate herself “green” or give herself full marks (even though she knew she could do it).

She played it safe, assessed herself as average and the lesson moved on. She still did very well.

So, what is the problem? In Visible Learning, John Hattie tells us that “self-assessments are poor and less accurate than assessments made by other people”, and “linked intimately to what you believe about yourself”.

Which means that low self-esteem and negative external influences can have a negative impact .

I work in an area of high disadvantage and low social mobility, where basic literacy levels are low.

There’s a clear argument that Rag-rated worksheets aren’t a good choice for a lot of these students – and yet still they are used.

traffic lights

Why? Because it looks like good assessment for learning (AfL), and everyone wants to show that they can do AfL.

But AfL needs to be chosen carefully and it needs be teacher-led. In Working Inside the Black Box, Dylan Wiliam et al state that self-assessment “will only happen if teachers help pupils, particularly the low-attainers, to develop the skill”.

It takes time, but trainees and NQTs haven’t had that time. Yet it is in their lessons that Rag is so often used.

These teachers need to be taught to model good self-assessment for the benefit of themselves (in reducing their workload) and their students.

Rag frequently leads to nothing; students just get on with their chosen worksheet and then pack away and leave at the end of the lesson.

Red alert

The reflective teacher will consider the impact on their future planning, of course, asking how they can adapt schemes of work to incorporate Rag feedback.

They will look at adjusting starting points, and ways to recover material for those who assessed themselves as “red”.

This can lead to effective grouping in future lessons or even later in the same session; reds with the teacher and ambers and greens with each other.

Therein lies the rub – it requires students to have the motivation to either work alone on challenging tasks, or effectively and productively in groups.

And this, too, requires time to embed those skills; time that is at a premium with a busy curriculum.

It takes time

But teachers who are new to the profession don’t have the knowledge of their students and what makes them tick, and they haven’t had the opportunity to establish those relationships and build those procedures into their lessons.

For Rag to work – and I do think it can – it needs time. It needs to be invested in.

Don’t worry about using a fancy AfL strategy to explicitly trumpet your ability to differentiate; reflect on what will work best for the students in your classroom and the current working relationship between them and you.

The best way to solve the problem of poor AfL is to teach staff how to do it properly, and give teachers (at all levels) the chance to experiment and use evidence to support their interventions.

Oh, and maybe burn all Rag-rated worksheets.

Henry Sauntson is assistant principal at the City of Peterborough Academy

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Henry Sauntson

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