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First Step: Assessing pupils - Put them to the test

Improve assessments by getting your pupils more closely involved in the process. You will soon see how they measure up

Nichola Marshall, a new teacher at Patcham High School in Brighton, employs a wide range of assessment types to boost pupils' motivation and ensure they don't get bored. Sometimes she even lets them decide which type of test they would like to do.

However, one group took advantage of this privilege and she soon realised: "I had a Year 7 class that loved assessment for learning (AFL) because they found they could cheat and better their answers," she says.

Ms Marshall now uses a mixture of AFL - where the children grade their own work according to certain criteria and receive suggestions on how to improve it - along with open book and normal tests. AFL normally takes the form of an essay or diagram and can be done on the computer, she says. But deciding what type of assessment is right for your class will depend on a number of factors and there is no quick checklist, explains Professor Mike Watts, the head of education at Brunel University.

Pupil assessment should involve a combination of formal and informal assessment. Ms Marshall alternates between marking the work herself, allowing the pupils to mark their own and getting them to mark each other's work.

"Pupils know their targets and their performance is judged against their own goals rather than against the rest of the class. This leads to a positive, secure, encouraging and supportive environment where making mistakes is part of the learning curve," she says. Pupils will then discuss the test afterwards, allowing them to address any fears, insecurities or simple mistakes and to learn from each other.

"It's not all about qualifications," insists Professor Watts. "It is, for example, the assessment of a successful pizza in food technology or good ball skills in PE. Self-assessment and peer assessments are important parts of the process."

How assessment is implemented will depend on the pupils, their age and stage, the purpose of the assessment, the subject area and, importantly, the priorities and direction of the school.

At Ms Marshall's school, pupils must be assessed at the end of every topic - either by AFL or normal tests - and there are usually three or four topics per term. "The whole point with AFL is that the pupils can mark the work but I still have to mark them for target purposes as they may not mark them correctly. I collect all the papers and then hand them back out randomly and we go through the answers as a class."

At least one of the science assessments each term at Patcham has to be done using a bought-in scheme of work called Explorer and conducted under test conditions to make the results comparable with the rest of the department.

For Jenny Hatch, a new history teacher at Belvidere School in Shropshire, spending a lot of time building up to essay assessments with Year 7 pupils - for whom it is often their first essay test - helps them understand exactly what is required to attain each level.

"I then spend time going through the marked pieces with the pupils and give them the chance to self-assess. This has proven useful as they can see what to work on to do better on their next essay," Ms Hatch explains.

The only problem she has encountered with assessment has been with lower- ability pupils. "They find it difficult to write large amounts, so I condense the essay into smaller paragraphs, allowing them to fill in the main points, without having to read and remember a great deal."

If you're concerned about assessing pupils, speak to your department head or assessment managers, as they will be able to provide tailored advice. "Don't be afraid to use peer assessment and self assessment in lessons as these are effective tools," she adds.

Next week: Do your own SWOT analysis


- Use a range of assessment techniques and allow the pupils to choose on occasion - this will boost their interest and motivation.

- Assessment for learning methods are a good way to allow pupils to give each other feedback and learn from each other.

- Be flexible - if you have planned an assessment but it's not working, don't just stick to it. It might work better if you alter it to suit the class.

- What works with one class may not work with others.

- Use past exam papers to get pupils to think about and discuss how to interpret and answer questions and fill gaps in their knowledge.

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