A way to make tests meaningful

8th December 2017 at 00:00
Frustrated with termly testing, dynamic assessment opened Lacey Flook’s eyes to a different approach

I admit, I was frustrated. Had I not been, then maybe I would have read past the passage on dynamic assessment (DA). But I stopped. I read. And I’m grateful that I did.

My frustration was with the utter pointlessness of conducting summative-assessment tests at the end of every term. The tests never revealed anything about my class that I didn’t already know from ongoing daily assessment: they were making progress, they weren’t making progress, they struggled with particular skills, and so on.

DA promised something different. Here was a way to make the continual testing meaningful, useful and relevant – for my pupils and for me.

What is dynamic assessment?

Traditional testing in education usually takes the format of a static test – children are asked or read questions, children record their answers – and there is very little interaction with the teacher. It certainly doesn’t tell you to what degree a child understands the question or concept. DA involves a mediated process of interaction to support the child to achieve more, but also to reveal where misconceptions occur.

DA has its roots in psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”, meaning the difference between what a child can do unaided and what they can achieve with support. It’s also closely linked with Reuven Feuerstein’s “mediated learning experience” theory – that is, the scaffolding of a learning process with the intention that it then becomes internalised.

How does it work in practice?

Let’s take an example from a key stage 1 reasoning test: “Sita puts two shoes in each of these boxes.” Seven boxes are pictured. “How many shoes are there altogether?”

The question is read to the child and they produce one of the following answers: zero, two, seven, 14. Clearly, only one answer is correct and in a static assessment that would be the end of the question, with no insights gleaned as to why incorrect answers may have been given. Using a DA approach, you can interact with the child to question them further and to understand their thinking.

Using this example, I would be asking whether they could explain the question to me. Did they understand the word “each”, meaning every box? Could they draw it? What did they count?

This level of questioning and interaction can be graduated from a simple hint to full support, in the form of teaching and breaking down the question into its constituent steps.

The most obvious reasons that DA is not used are that either teachers are not familiar with it, as research suggests, or rather that it is a much more time-consuming approach. Sitting with a child to complete a test in this style can take 30 minutes or more depending on the age and ability of the child; in a class of 30, you are talking about three whole days, and up to a week, of teaching time for one subject’s assessments.

So how can you make this manageable in a KS1 classroom?

It is about prioritising target students. I try to keep a close eye on the progress and attainment of my class anyway (who doesn’t?).

As a primary teacher, I have the luxury of having my class all day, every day, so I get to know them really well. I regularly review my target students and these are the ones that I use DA with, and not just on a termly, I-need-to-submit-data test, but on a regular unit, topic or weekly basis. It can easily be adapted and used in a “keep up”, not “catch up” intervention, when children who haven’t achieved in the lesson can be addressed that day or week, timetable permitting.

DA does not have to be a huge and onerous undertaking – it can be done in a 20-minute morning break. Spending time investigating the child’s understanding of a problem moves teaching and learning on quicker than a test.

Any downsides?

Criticisms of DA lie in its unreliability and its subjectivity. It is an approach that can be standardised if needed for big-data-producing assessments, but realistically, its merits in being a more accurate predictor or indicator of student ability should outweigh the potential subjectivity in its application by teachers.

Whether or not it is unreliable or subjective, DA has certainly improved my practice and has contributed to the enhanced progress of the children in my maths lessons.

Lacey Flook is a middle leader at the Bridge Learning Campus in Bristol

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