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Three steps to better assessments

Collaboration, data and exam board resources are the keys to building an improved assessment system, writes Matt Harwood

Matt Harwood sets out three steps to help to achieve a better assessment system

Collaboration, data and exam board resources are the keys to building an improved assessment system, writes Matt Harwood

Research suggests that teachers don’t feel confident or supported in assessing their students, and I’m sure these uncertainties have been brought into sharper focus with the recent curriculum changes in A levels and GCSEs.

Teaching is a constant process of planning, teaching and assessment; stopping to take stock rarely feels like an option. So, when a new specification and assessment model is thrown into the mix, it naturally has the potential to create more work.

In my subject of history, for example, controlled assessments have been replaced with an exam. On the one hand, this is great as I have more time to focus on exam skills, but it also increases the content with no increase in teaching time. We’ve also seen new topics introduced that help us to inspire disengaged pupils, but, equally, they need to be planned from scratch within a year.

Two years in, I remain convinced that it is the pace of the change that is making teachers nervous, rather than the change itself.

However, all this has been a real opportunity to redesign our assessment of pupil progress in a way we understand and give a framework within which we immediately feel confident planning lessons. So how have we built a better assessment system?

1. Collaboration is key

In our education authority, schools are grouped in “networks”, which encourage colleagues from the same subject to meet termly to support each other. Agendas are set by the group and so assessment has featured prominently, both before and after exams, allowing us to share concerns as well as reviewing them.

This has given teachers the opportunity to peer review their marking and assessment, gaining confidence in their understanding of the assessments and mark schemes.

Conversations with colleagues and subject organisations can also offer support for planning and assessment. For example, the Historical Association publishes Teaching History, a journal which provides practical examples of successful classroom practice by teachers from across the country, underpinned by appropriate pedagogy that gives confidence to teachers about the rigour of activities.

2. Make better use of data

Education is becoming increasingly influenced by data, and I’m personally a big fan of data that puts together a view of how pupils have performed in an assessment or exam. But what I enjoy more, and what is more important, is spending time with colleagues reviewing data and trying to make sense of it and the stories it tells.

Regardless of the type of assessment that is conducted, the key is to be transparent and honest about the results. Staff need to know that reviewing results is an opportunity to identify successful trends of improvements in pupil performance, as well as trends in the difficulties that teachers may have.

This enables them to solve problems collaboratively and support each other. The use of a common markbook in an Excel spreadsheet is something I’ve begun to use in school so that we are able to track pupils, but also analyse how well our own “in-house” assessments are working.

For example, we found the whole Year 8 cohort had struggled with a particular question. The data allowed us to identify that the problem was with the question and not the pupils’ abilities or effort.

We changed our approach by honing and revising our assessments, and this gave the teachers reassurance that their performance was not being interrogated.

When it comes to exam-based assessments, a similar approach can be taken by agreeing a common cycle of assessment.  This is crucial in enabling your team to support each other, especially in the early days of a new specification.

3. Make use of exam board resources

Many exam boards provide feedback meetings after each series of exams to support teachers in improving exam performance. Often held in the autumn term, these meetings can provide valuable insight into precisely what examiners are looking for.

And, of course, exam board websites are also good for sourcing assessment materials. You’re probably familiar with exemplar papers and mark schemes, but take a look at the examiners’ reports and any results analysis tools the board may have.

All this can help ease that nagging uncertainty of exactly what an examiner is looking for.

Matt Harwood is the head of history at Ormskirk School in Lancashire and is a teacher trainer for the AQA exam board

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