I can remember marking my first set of exercise books. A class I’d taught had written a short response to a poem called Timothy Winters by Charles Causley. I read through the first few books and it felt like the pupils were writing about a different poem. I skipped ahead to the book of a girl who seemed to have been nodding intelligently in the lesson, but she hadn’t understood the poem either.
I went through the whole set of about 25 textbooks and not one pupil had understood the poem in the way I thought they had when I was teaching it.
When one pupil in a class doesn’t understand something, you can tell yourself that it’s the pupil who has the problem. When 25 pupils don’t understand it, it’s definitely your problem.
That’s why assessment matters: it tells us if pupils really have understood something.
But it is also why assessment is hard.
Over the next few years, I experienced fewer lessons where pupils totally misunderstood something. But there were more and more times where the information I was getting from assessments felt incomplete, or confusing, or left me with more questions than answers.
For example, sometimes pupils would say sparkling and insightful things in class, only to turn in essays that were plodding and pedestrian.
Other times, pupils would diligently do everything I’d asked them to, but their essays failed to get the very top grades because they so closely repeated things that I had told them in class.
Did they really understand Dickens’s intentions in the first chapter of Great Expectations, or had they just transcribed my words?
At times like this, assessment reminded me of David Lodge’s description of communication in the novel Nice Work:
"If you say something to me, I check that I have understood your message by saying it back to you in my own words, that is, different words from the ones you used, for if I repeat your own words exactly you will doubt whether I have really understood you. But if I use my words it follows that I have changed your meaning, however slightly; and even if I were to indicate my comprehension by repeating back to you your own unaltered words, that is no guarantee that I have duplicated your meaning in my head, because I bring a different experience of language, literature, and non-verbal reality to those words, therefore they mean something different to me from what they mean to you."
Sometimes pupils would tell me that they preferred the type of assessment they got in maths, where it was clear what was right and what was wrong. In maths, if you wrote exactly the same thing as everyone else in the class, then as long as it was correct, that was a good thing. In English, it meant you had been cheating!
But even maths teachers have the same challenge about working out if pupils have really understood something or not: a dozen pupils could write the same method and answer to the same question, but still have quite different conceptions of the underlying maths.
Assessment – like communication – is deceptively difficult. It can be easy to assume pupils have understood something when they haven’t.
But that is also why assessment is fascinating: fundamentally it is about meaning, communication and the possibility of being understood by another human being.
Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking and the author of Making Good Progress? and Seven Myths about Education. She tweets @daisychristo
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