Vive la assessment revolution! Out of widespread confusion, might we find clarity?

Most teachers don’t really understand assessment, a new report has found. Good thing too, writes one leading head. It’s time we rethought the whole thing

Bernard Trafford

Realistic aspirations: It's dangerous to tell children that they can be anything they want to be, says Bernard Trafford

So, teachers don’t know what to do about assessment: let’s be grateful for that.

Let me explain. This story, reported widely (and, in the Tes, by Eleanor Busby on Thursday) suggests that there is a crisis in assessment. I would argue that a crisis in assessment is precisely what we need.

Educational thinktank LKMco reports that a fifth of teachers don’t know where to look for information on assessment, and only a third feel “very confident“ in their ability to assess pupils’ work and understanding. Moreover, the majority of teachers received no training in undertaking assessments as part of their initial teacher training.

You might think that should be worrying: but it isn’t, necessarily. Research over the last decade or two – especially that led by Professor Dylan Wiliam at the UCL Institute of Education, though Durham University's Professor Rob Coe has more recently been hard at it too – has cast doubt on most elements of traditional assessment methods.

I’m normally quick to rush to the defense of teachers: but, on assessment, I concede that the profession has frequently been resistant to reflection and new thinking. It’s taken decades to persuade teachers as a whole to admit that a mark out of 10 plus comment (“satisfactory“ or “could try harder”) is of negligible use either to them or to their pupils and their parents.

Wiliam’s work has made great strides, yet he readily bewails the fact that the detailed and considered approach encapsulated in Assessment for Learning (AfL) is far too often caricatured by teachers as “that traffic-light thing”. Worse still, they go on to claim that, on AfL, they’ve “been there, done that”.

Assessment is linked, of course, to the whole question of reporting. Many parents still love nice, simple effort and attainment grades: they feel they know how their child is getting on. The message that such judgements are both arbitrary and unscientific is only now starting to filter through to them. I hope to see a day when no teacher at the end of November feels obliged (generally an internal, self-generated command) to set every class they teach a test: “otherwise, how can they write their end-of-term reports?” But we’re not there yet.

The profession’s view of assessment has grown far beyond those early thoughts and misunderstandings around AfL. There remains much confusion and doubt: but that’s something we should welcome. At last, it seems, minds are opening and there is a willingness to put assessment under a microscope. Teachers (rather than policymakers) need to work with researchers to understand not just what can and cannot be usefully assessed, but also what should (and should not) be taken into consideration: the two things are different.

Then there’s the question of workload. It appears that education secretary Justine Greening might be more open to consideration of it than most of her predecessors: any future directions for assessment must take into account the demands made of teachers.

There is thus much to welcome in LKMco’s report, though I deplored its simplistic recommendation that there should be “a test on assessment that trainee teachers have to pass before qualifying”. It’s symptomatic of education policy in this country that everything has to come down to a test – even when it’s concerned with testing (sorry: assessment). Perhaps those who make the policies and design the courses should pass that test first – er, when we finally decide what assessment looks like.

So let’s rejoice that teachers are confused about assessment. The moment is right and the profession is ripe for a root-and-branch review and the development of a new consensus on the nature and purposes of assessment.

Who knows? We might even get it right this time…

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He is currently interim head of the Purcell School in Hertfordshire. He tweets @bernardtrafford.

To read more columns, view his back catalogue


Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

Find me on Twitter @bernardtrafford

Latest stories