A Critical Reflection of England’s Assessment Policies and Practices [Part 3]

Part 3: The weaknesses of assessment policies in England

I would now like to discuss some criticisms of the assessment policies I encountered in England. One of my biggest concerns with regards to assessment policies is the ambiguity found within both key stage three and key stage four grades. The problem with these grades is that they represent a method of communication between teachers, parents, and students that ineffectually try to convey a wide variety of information in a very simplistic fashion and require students to answer questions in a very limited or rigid fashion.

When grading a piece of summative work using levels in key stage three, teachers assign a particular grade based on the mastery of a number of different skill sets and expectations. For example, a student may be asked to write an opinion piece on why William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings. In order to do this, the students are told that they have to demonstrate knowledge of the surrounding events before the battle; a brief description of what happened during the battle itself, and why they believe William was ultimately victorious. When marking this particular piece of work, teachers are looking for the demonstration of a few particular skills such as: historical knowledge, careful use of evidence to support an opinion, critical thinking skills to determine what is relevant in coming to a particular conclusion, effective communication skills in conveying their knowledge and opinions in writing, etc.

It is only natural that each student will complete this task showing different degrees of mastery at each particular skill. Some students may excel at effectively communicating their ideas, but lack the historical knowledge to effectively answer the question; a second student may demonstrate good historical knowledge, but choose sources to support this knowledge that are untrustworthy due to being obviously bias towards a particular viewpoint. In a class of thirty pupils, one can imagine that a wide variety of different strengths and weaknesses are demonstrated with regards to each skill.

The problem of this method of assessment lies in the belief that teachers are meant to weigh the mastery of these individual skills in a particular piece and come to a single level grade to demonstrate a student’s competency in all of them. It becomes difficult to determine what should hold more value when judging a piece that inherently demonstrates several important key skills. A teacher is asked to weigh the value of several skills that have been completed to varying degrees and decide which has more value. Is it the ability to write effectively, the use of historical knowledge, or perhaps the ability to think critically?

The student ends up with a mark that is meant to represent a large amount of information without a detailed breakdown of where their strengths and weaknesses lay. Although this information can be conveyed in detailed written feedback, when one considers that a teacher will have, at minimum, thirty assessments with varying degrees of ability, expressed over several key skill sets, this task becomes monumental.

Similarly, the GCSE style questions in key stage four are very deceptive, in that they have a hidden expectation, that students must not only answer a question correctly, but also answer the question in a specific formulaic rigid way. One example may be a “How far do you agree” question, where students are given a statement and asked to answer how accurate this statement is, based on their knowledge. It is not simply enough for a student to demonstrate a wide variety of knowledge in regards to the question and make a good case with evidence to support their opinion, to receive full marks, a student must present both a reason why they agree with the statement and a reason why they do not agree with the statement, before coming to a conclusion about which of the two reasons is best.

I have graded several students in the past who have made a wonderful case for why they agree with a given statement; their answer demonstrates a wide variety of diverse knowledge and critical thinking, but according to the question guidelines, these responses were not worthy of full marks because they did not provide a reason in support of why it may be possible to disagree with the initial statement. It seems like a simple enough fix to alter the question to reflect what is needed to meet the expectations required to receive full marks, however, most exam writers seem to stick with this rigid format, leaving teachers to not only educate students about course content and skills, but also to ensure that students know how to apply the content and skills of the course to unnecessary formulaic, hidden guidelines.

I think the solution to these problems is to implement a rubric based system that outlines the important skills the assessment is meant to exemplify along a continuum of descriptive ability ranges in student friendly language. By using this, teachers save themselves having to write out thirty short essays on a varying mixture of skill competencies, and can simply highlight the strengths and weaknesses along the skill mastery continuum. Short, written, descriptive feedback or encouragement can then be added to target individual student needs while still making clear to students exactly what they need to work on.

Furthermore, I found that, at times, students did not fully understand the skill-sets they were meant to utilize during the completion of their assignments, particularly in GCSE classes. I have observed several instances where students were asked to write an assessment, but were not given any specific guidance or knowledge as to how their work was to be marked or exactly what their instructor was looking for. When guidelines were given to students about what was expected, they were not always in student friendly language and remained obscure.

If we expect a task to be completed to a high degree, we cannot expect our students to intuit what they need to do in order to be successful. We must make our expectations abundantly clear from the start. When possible, we should use exemplars from previous students work to demonstrate what a good piece of work looks like. The work does not have to be the exact same assessment we expect our students to complete, as we are not looking to assess how well they can copy; the example simply has to demonstrate the skills we are looking for to a high degree. Better yet, why not present a range of previous works representing different abilities and allow the students to discuss which they think shows the highest degree of skill and why.

Another related criticism of the assessment policies I encountered is based on a lack of differentiation opportunities available to students on summative assessments. The ability to differentiate material to a student or class is a key tool in a teacher’s toolkit and one that is highly prized. During my time in England, I was lucky enough to receive several hours of continued professional development sessions that were aimed at effective differentiation strategies. It is a skill that is highly prized, and yet, at the same time, all forms of differentiation are not fully embraced.

Though teacher employed differentiation is valued with much regard; schools are looking for teachers that can take a given lesson and change it to suit the needs and abilities of individual students and whole classes. Yet, assessment differentiation is rarely employed or embraced. While I acknowledge that there are times when a teacher wants to assess a particular skill, such as the ability to write an essay, and thus, must put restrictions on the type of assignment they want their class to complete. However, there are other times, when looking for a particular skill, that the method of this communication can and ought to be varied. If a teacher is looking to test student knowledge, then why limit a student’s method of expression to a written test, when a short written assignment, a dramatic sketch, or a podcast would work just as well?

Let me be clear, the reason I believe differentiation by assessment is not utilized is not because teachers see no value in it, rather, it is not employed because teachers are aware that as much as they may allow creativity and self-expression into their classroom, it is possible to differentiate their students away from the final assessment, resulting in poor grades. What I mean by this is that the final method of assessment for a course is set to be a writing task. Because examinations are completed by external examination boards that stick to a rigid written format, if a teacher differentiates too much, they risk allowing students to become comfortable expressing their knowledge in ways that will not gain them marks on the final exam.

Here we come to a philosophical debate on the ultimate purpose of schools. Some would argue that our job as educators is to develop students into productive human beings who leave school with the necessary skill-set to be successful in the working world. This line of reasoning continues, that in the working world we are not always allowed to express our knowledge or skills in any fashion we desire. If asked to create a business report, an individual may give an entertaining dramatic presentation on a companies stock history, but will ultimately fail to impress their superiors. In many situations in life, there is only one acceptable method for completing a task, and so the reasoning goes, why should school be any different.

A second viewpoint on the purpose of schools, which I myself subscribe to, argues that the role of schools is to educate and inspire students to become rounded individuals; not cogs in a bureaucratic machine. There is a large part of school that is about preparation for the outside world; we as teachers would be remiss if we ignored the fact that students will eventually move beyond our classrooms and enter the outside world. That being said, schools must also be a place of individual growth and development, a place of self-expression and creativity. Ultimately, we as educators must remember our purpose: to develop our student’s minds and allow them to find themselves, not to force them into a mold which may (or may not) help them find future employment.

This viewpoint is not necessarily opposed to preparing students for employment in the working world. Although it is the case that we do not always get to express ourselves in ways we would like, we do have the ability to choose our path and find careers that are suited to our personal strengths. As a student, I often struggled with conveying my knowledge in writing, but I was lucky enough to have had teachers that allowed me to demonstrate my knowledge through other mediums, such as verbal presentations, that were much more suited to my strengths. When looking for a career, I remembered my strengths and teaching has allowed me to earn a living off a mode of expression I find comfort in.

By limiting our modes of assessment to one particular format, say a written format, we force a variety of artists, actors, builders, etc. to adapt to a mode of expression they may never need when they leave our classrooms. More importantly, we may get results that do not accurately reflect their ability because they have been handicapped by a particular medium that does not reflect their strengths and thus does not show their best work.

To conclude, I would like to discuss the most frustrating aspect of assessment criteria I encountered in England, which are target levels. Target levels represent the expected progress a student is meant to have achieved by the end of a school year. Students will have different target levels for each subject and the idea is that each year students are meant to progress at least one level higher than their previous years target. For example, a student in history may start year seven with a level 3 as their target grade; the grade they are meant to achieve by the end of the school year, would be level 4.

Target levels are problematic for several reasons, the first being that they assume learning occurs in a linear fashion. Simply put, target levels do not take life into account. They fail to understand that as students grow and develop, gain life experiences, and get exposed to new concepts and ideas, their learning will inevitably be impacted, along with their mentality towards themselves and their education.

Saying to each child, that no matter what happens in their personal lives, they are expected to make a measured degree of progress each year is ludicrous. It’s not hard to imagine a number of circumstances that life may throw at a student that would have a negative impact on their learning; perhaps a student’s parents will go through a divorce or they will experience a death in the family. Target grades make no account of life’s inevitabilities and fail to take the human aspect of learning into account. They place a tremendous burden on teachers to push progress on students who may not be in any sort of mental or physical state to be receptive to learning.

Not only are target levels problematic because they embody a ‘one-size-fits all’ expectation when it comes to student progress, they also put blinders on teachers when it comes to marking; a process which harms both students who are struggling and students who are doing exceptionally well. Target levels can blind teachers because they falsely place a marker on how well a teacher is doing based on how many of their students reach their target. Teachers who fail to get a sufficient amount of students to their target grade are put under scrutiny and can face sanctions, while teachers who successfully get their students to their targets receive pay raises.

What can end up happening is that when a teacher is due to mark work they will sit down with the assessment and the data relating to target grades and make the assessment mark reflect the progress needed to show linear progress. A student who is struggling is awarded a mark they do not necessarily deserve, but is needed, in order to show progress, while a student who is doing exceptionally well may have their mark brought down because if a mark is too high then the amount of progress that is expected is amplified.

In practice, you may have a student who starts the year with a target of level 5, however, after their first assessment, their grade is level 5. They have achieved the level they are meant to have reached by the end of the year, at the very start. Teachers may choose to lower the actual result of their level on this first assessment to a level 4 and attribute this mark to one exceptionally well-done piece of work. However, there are cases where students continually reach or exceed their target grade, and what can happen is that the assessment results are manipulated to fit what the data says they should be. Likewise, there are students who continually fail to achieve their target levels, whose marks are changed to reach them. With this system, it is the data that drives the assessment marks and not the other way around!

I believe that this scenario is a direct result of having levels represent a large amount of information where highly detailed assessment criteria are needed. What is worrying is that a teacher may issue students a test that is aimed at assessing their ability on a particular skill set and a student may do exceptionally well; on their next assessment, the teacher may focus on a different skill set and the student may struggle. However because of the limited method of communication offered by the level system, it can be difficult give a student a lower grade. When I experienced this scenario and asked for an explanation, I was told, “Students cannot get thicker.” The mentality here is that once a level of competency is achieved, it cannot decline. Despite the fact that in this case two distinct skill sets are being evaluated, one is always encouraged to show progress, even when it has not always occurred.

Understanding how target levels are established only leads to further frustration as they are determined in primary school and follow a student for the rest of their primary and secondary career. Target levels are the product of both standardized testing and a primary school teacher’s best judgment on the ability of a particular student at a particular time. These targets are established in year two and set the expectations for a given student up until they complete their GCSE in year eleven. If target grades were somehow perfect they would effectively tell a student in year two the grades they can expect to receive in year eleven.

However, as I have illustrated, target grades are far from perfect. They are established and based on information that has been gathered to represent an individual student at a particular phase of their life, and there is obviously no formula that can predict the large amount of varying factors that each student will experience. It is possible that a student could do extremely well during their early primary years and get set a target level that is ambitious. Following this, the student may undergo hardships or simply not live up to the expectations established for them at a young age, as they progress through their education. Yet, as I have explained above, the data will at times be manipulated to reach the target, and so even though the student may lack the ability required to reach a particular level, they will somehow find themselves awarded with the grade.

The heart of the problem is not the target grades themselves, but the attitude they foster amongst both students and teachers. In student’s eyes, target grades represent their intelligence. Students who receive low targets can tend to think of themselves as intellectually weaker than their classmates, whose targets are higher. Because teachers are encouraged to follow the data, this belief is usually reinforced when teacher marking falls in line with what the target level predicts. Although it is not always the case that teachers will purposely raise or lower a student’s mark to meet their target, I wonder how much of an unconscious impact target grades have on a teacher’s ability to award a grade that is an accurate reflection of a student’s work.

Regardless, it is not difficult to empathize with a student who is quite aware that the expectations put upon them are lesser than some of their peers because they have a lower target. A low level can effectively tell a student that they are not as good as some of their classmates, and although they will make progress, they will most likely fail to achieve more academically than those with higher targets. This mentality would help explain much of the behavioral difficulties I encountered, as well as account for why some students lacked the motivation to give their studies their best effort.

Target levels impact teachers by essentially making each student a stock. Although target grades are established for students in year two, they are not subject to any real test with regards to the accuracy of these levels until a student finishes school in year eleven. From the moment targets are established in year two, teachers have an incentive to skew marks to meet the requirements of the target level in order to avoid sanctions and gain pay raises. However, in year eleven, when students complete their final exams, that are administered and marked by external examiners, who are not privy to student target levels while they mark, this results in students receiving the first unbiased reflection of their ability.

In the worse case scenario, this situation likens students to stocks in some teacher’s eyes because as a teacher looking around a year eleven classroom, it is easy to identify which student’s targets are accurate, which are moderately accurate, and which are hopelessly high. The students themselves may not be aware of this because from what they have experienced, they always meet or come close to their target grade.

The teacher is aware that in order to get a raise for the year, they have to get a certain percent of his or her class to a particular grade. What happens now is that the teacher has to consider which of these stocks are worth investing in, and which are not. Students who are likely to reach or exceed their target are given less help and attention despite the potential for more growth and development because they will do enough to reach their grade, while students who could potentially reach their target, but it’s not guaranteed, are given as much help and support both from teachers and T.A.’s as possible, to try to turn them into a winning stock. Those students whose target is far too high are essentially abandoned. They may receive some support, but overall the task of getting them to where they need to be is not possible based on the time a teacher has before the exam, and so the focus is placed on raising the middle up, not helping the bottom achieve.

We can see that in this system, if a teacher is motivated purely in terms of economy, then the students who need the most help, necessarily suffer. This is because they have targets ascribed to them that get progressively higher despite their abilities remaining the same. Thus at a point in their final year when faced with an assessment which no longer has to be manipulated to fit data, it becomes more profitable to focus attention on students who show the potential to meet the grade.

I want to be clear here. I am not saying that every teacher operates with this mentality, in fact, I know a large number of teachers who give up pay raises when they could easily play this game; the problem, is that the assessment system subtly encourages teachers to act in this way. In essence, from an exceptionally young age students are given a target that increases on a linear path and they are expected to meet it year after year. Teachers are encouraged to mark in order to show this progress or face sanctions and are rewarded with pay raises for continuing to get students to their goal. This culminates in a kind of stock scenario in a student’s final year when they face their first unbiased assessment.

This leads us to perhaps the most worrying aspect of assessment policies in England that stem from a simple lack of professional confidence in teachers to be trusted to assess accurately. This inherent lack of trust is obviously related to the pay incentivization that is linked to student progress. Schools argue that external examination boards are needed in order to prevent teachers from submitting inaccurate information about student results because they have an economic motivation to lie. As I’ve just illustrated above, it is quite clear that this reasoning is correct and yet despite having external examination boards, student learning can still suffer because of the choices a teacher has to make leading up to a final exam.

The problem is not that teachers are inherently untrustworthy; the problem is that schools continue to link pay raises with student results. When you create an environment where the only way to get a raise is to get results, then teachers will do what it takes to get them (whether they are earned or not). This is not something unique to the teaching trade. Imagine if doctors were given raises, not based on how much experience and education they had, but instead, on how many patients they are able to cure. How many doctors would give into the economic temptation and become snake oil salesmen and how many would face year after year without a pay raise because their numbers didn’t meet expectations.

Again, it is not that teachers are inherently bad or greedy people. The problem is that the system judges the worth of a teacher by something that is not completely within their control. Although it is attractive to think that we should judge the ability of a teacher based on how well their students perform, this line of thinking takes the human element out of the equation. Teachers are not dealing with stable, tangible, or inanimate objects. We ply our trade to young human beings who have vastly different personalities (that sometimes conflict with our own), who are subject to the various circumstances of life and who have ups and downs. We deal with young people who are in the process of discovering who they are, and who they want to be. The teaching profession cannot and should not be judged in terms of a normative standard of progress, because firstly, teachers have little control of this progress, and secondly, maintaining that there is such a normative standard for human progress and development completely ignores all the varieties of life.

A much more effective basis upon which to award pay raises would be to encourage teachers to improve their craft by linking pay increases to continued professional development. This policy would serve three main purposes; firstly, it would link pay raises to something teachers have objective control over. Secondly, it would improve the standard of teaching by allowing teachers to come together and discuss effective teaching techniques, while also keeping their knowledge of educational pedagogy up to date. This would also reward the many teachers who already seek out CPD as a way to improve on their existing skills. Finally, by taking away the incentive to misrepresent marks, teachers could once again focus on the development of their students. Teachers would be able to work together and collaborate as professionals and design assessments that meet the needs of their students while also accurately reflecting their student’s abilities, allowing them to make informed decisions about their future.

Conclusion

In summation, it has been my intent to reflect upon what I believe good assessment policies should look like, while also exploring both the strengths and the weaknesses of the assessment systems I observed in England. In exploring this topic I have spent a lot of time being critical of the English system and although I believe that this system needs to be improved, I also believe that it has a lot to offer other countries in terms of progress. I can say that without a doubt teaching in England has made me a much better teacher. The emphasis on professional growth and development is the primary goal of most schools, as they want to improve. I am continually impressed by the quality of teachers that I came across in England as each of my English colleagues was in the field because they genuinely cared about the development of their students and wanted to have a positive influence on young minds. It is the adoption of this attitude that has driven me to write this piece, as I feel that reflection is an important aspect of continual growth. My only hope is that I can one day be as good as the many amazing teachers I encountered during my time in England.

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