Over the past two years, I have spent time working within England’s secondary school system and have had the opportunity to not only observe, but also become actively involved in assessing the learning of students within England’s grading frameworks. I found this experience enlightening as England employs vastly different assessment methods to what I had experienced in Canada as both a student and a teacher. My intention in writing this piece is to not only reflect upon the grading practices I have observed in England, but also to point out practices that I feel are strengths and weaknesses of this system. In doing so, I have expounded my own philosophy of what effective assessment should comprise of.
My observations are not limited to my experiences in one school in particular, as I have had the opportunity to work as a both a full-time and cover teacher at several schools across the East Midlands area. While I am aware that grading policies within England are due to change and the system I describe is based on a limited time and geographical location within England, I still feel that my reflections hold merit, not only for my own personal growth as an educator but also for other teachers both in England and around the world. The backdrop of my observations on assessment strategies stem from my understanding of assessment theorists like Rick Stiggins, Tom Schimmer, and specifically, Ken O’Connor.
In part one of this three part reflection, I intend to discuss the importance of accurate assessment implementation through a distinction between formative and summative assessment methods as well as what I believe the aims of assessments ought to be, and what this would look like in practice. Part two of this reflection will examine the strengths of the assessment policies I encountered while in England with a explanation as to why I believe they represent good practice. I will conclude this reflection in part three by discussing the weaknesses of the assessment policies I encountered and where possible offer what I believe to be practical solutions to solve these problems.
Part One: The importance of assessment, my philosophy
To begin, I would like to discuss the importance of accurate assessment methods, as I believe that they serve as a vital method of communication between teachers, parents, students, and post-secondary institutions on the abilities of a particular student. Without accurate assessment methods, teachers, parents, and students are unable to comprehensively understand the strengths and weaknesses of a student. One can see the potential detriment of murky communication, when considering the reality that students often make important life decisions based on assessment data that could be incomplete or reflect an inaccurate account of the student’s abilities. One example being a student who has been led to believe that they can expect relative success in a post-secondary institution based on grades that have over-inflated their ability. It is not uncommon for students to enter post-secondary with unrealistic expectations for success, based on their grade performance while in secondary school, potentially resulting in both personal and financial hardships. Perhaps worse, one can imagine a situation where a learner misses out on reaching their full potential because they have been led to believe that they lack a particular set of abilities which they, in fact, possess or may possess, had their deficiencies been identified and developed using appropriate assessment methods.
Although we typically think of assessments in terms of representing learning that has already taken place, assessments when employed correctly can actually be a vital part of the learning process. Here I believe it is important to make a distinction between formative and summative assessment and clarify what each represents and why they are crucial in the development of a pupil’s education. According to Ken O’Connor “Formative assessments are designed to help students improve, and in almost all cases, should not be used to determine grades. Summative assessments are designed to measure student achievement and “are used to make statements of student learning status at a point in time to those outside the classroom.””
Perhaps the best way to understand the difference between formative and summative assessment is to use a commonly employed analogy between assessments and the nature of competitive sport. Formative assessments represent a team’s ability to practice and have a coach (or teacher) assesses the ability of the team in relation to a particular set of skills and then develop these skills with well thought out drills (or lessons) designed to improve players performance for the game. Summative assessments represent the game itself where the onus is now placed on the team (or learner) to demonstrate the skills they have developed through practice.
Placing this analogy within the classroom, a history teacher, after several lessons specifically aimed at introducing and developing the skill of understanding bias, gives his or her class a formative test which will demonstrate their ability to correctly identify said skill, and thus, demonstrate an understanding of the concept. Based on the results of this test, the teacher may choose to continue on to the next skill, if the entire class has effectively demonstrated an understanding of the concept; the teacher may choose to spend a few more lessons developing the concept of bias if the majority of the class has failed to grasp the concept; or the teacher may choose to allow the majority of the class to continue onto the next concept while providing specific intervention for the few students who failed to demonstrate an understanding of the concept based on their assessment results.
The key to this process is that the students receive highly detailed feedback on their formative assessments explaining not only their level of mastery of the skill, but also ways to improve their understanding, or ideas to help push their understanding further. It is important to note that formative assessments do not need (and in my opinion should not have), any kind of number or letter grade attached to them. Such grades only distract a student’s attention away from the purpose of the formative assessment, which is the detailed feedback. Providing such grades drives students to solely associate academic achievement with particular letters and numbers, instead of mastery of a particular skill. A low number or grade only serves to disappoint a student who is struggling to acquire a skill, whereas carefully worded feedback may provoke later progress; likewise, a reasonably high number or grade may result in a sense of complacency in a student who feels that they have achieved a level of mastery that is “good enough”, where detailed written feedback could push this student towards higher levels of understanding.
At the end of a unit of lessons focusing on bias, the teacher should then conduct a summative assessment, whereby students complete an activity that is, again, designed to test their mastery of a particular skill (in this example, bias). The difference here is that this assessment will result in a number or grade that will represent the student’s final level of mastery on the given skill at a given time. On summative assessments, students should be provided with some kind of mark to denote their abilities in regard to the tested skill, and although descriptive feedback isn’t required here (as the learning has occurred and been tested), it is good practice to include some remarks explaining why a particular mark has been given (especially since these summative tests are not always the last opportunity for students to demonstrate their development, as we shall see).
Up until this point, the sporting analogy has served well in explaining the difference between formative and summative assessments and their purpose, but I think here we must break with or change the analogy to suit ideal practice. Although summative assessments exist, I believe that they are a product of limited time constraints. Unfortunately, teachers have a curriculum to follow, and although we can differentiate and do our best to foster learning, we inevitably reach points where we can no longer dedicate any more time to a particular topic or skill. In my mind, the only thing that makes an assignment summative is the condition that it is the last assessment that has been issued and marked with the intention of being used to formulate a grade. Under this definition, it is possible for a summative assessment to turn into a formative assessment if a student wishes to continue to work on developing the necessary skills required to pass the test.
Teachers often have mixed feelings about allowing students to re-take an assessment, but I strongly believe that we must have the ability to plan time for this contingency as it represents the whole point of our profession. Our job is to ensure the academic growth of the individuals put in front of us, and if a student has failed to grasp a concept and then takes the feedback given to them by their instructor, or they conduct some independent learning to acquire this knowledge, then we have a professional responsibility to give this learning credit. Failure to do so only leads to an inaccurate account of a student’s abilities leading to the aforementioned problems.
This is why I believe it is good practice to continue to add descriptive feedback to summative assessments. To go back to the sporting analogy, summative assessments represent the final score of the game, however, in this case, the students or players ideally have the ability to wind back the clock and continue to play until they win the game or develop mastery of the skills required. Although this isn’t always possible within the context of traditional educational frameworks, if this attitude is conveyed to the students, it will reinforce the notion that one’s education is a lifelong pursuit and not determinant of a particular time and place (vis-à-vis their school years).
I believe that the role of any educator is to foster the development of key skills within their pupils, through the lens of their subject. Although most teachers tend to believe that their particular subject holds objective value towards the development of rounded individuals, we need to understand that not all of our students will find this value. It’s not by chance that students tend to gravitate to particular subjects that hold their interest, and this should not be viewed as a problem. We should encourage this amongst our students but stress to them that however much they love (or hate) our subjects, the content we teach is merely a vehicle to drive the development of skills which they will later need in life.
Student learning is like a painting, we need to imprint the black lines which represent important skills such as reading, writing, addition, subtraction, critical thinking, use of evidence, understanding of bias, etc. and fill in these lines with the color (or content) of our subjects. Accordingly, each student’s painting (or learning) will have the same foundations (or skills), but look drastically different based on the colors (or subjects) the student chooses to fill in the blank spaces with. This allows for the development of rounded individuals while also allowing students to pursue their own interests.
As a history teacher, I do not expect the majority of my students to be able to remember the battle of Hastings in 1066, twenty years after I’ve taught them about it. That being said, I would hope that I’ve played a part in developing these students writing, reading, and research skills. I’d love to think that each of my students leaves my classroom with a new found love of history that they intend to pursue, as history is something that I myself value, however, realistically, I must accept that students may have interests that lie outside of my own and so I have to content myself with the idea that no matter what their individual interests, they will gain and develop valuable skills through the lens of my history lessons which they can later use to pursue their own interests, whatever they may be.
What this approach requires in order to work effectively, is for teachers to come together within a particular subject to discuss and identify the various skills that lend themselves to being expressed within their subject, as no one subject can exemplify all of the skills students will need to develop during their time in secondary school, although there will be overlap in most subjects with core skills such as reading, writing, etc. Furthermore, teachers need to identify how the chosen set of skills will be developed within their subject’s curriculum, and most importantly, how they will be consistently assessed within the department.
This approach also lends itself to effective detailed feedback, as students will know which specific skills that are being looked at for a given assignment, while also allowing a teacher to differentiate and emphasize different skills at different times. This method acknowledges that on any given assignment, a student will need to use a wide variety of skills in order to be successful. Although a teacher may be looking for one particular skill, say the ability to identify bias, this particular skill cannot be mastered without the use of other skills, such as the ability to read and understand a written passage or the historical knowledge needed to provide context within a given source.
There is nothing wrong with focusing an assessment on one particular skill, but if we acknowledge a multifaceted skill approach we are able to give even more detailed feedback to students that may help them identify where their strengths and weaknesses lie. This approach to assessment allows a teacher to tell a student that although they may have mastered the ability to identify bias, but they need to improve their knowledge of historical context in order to broaden a readers understanding of why said bias exists. It demonstrates to students that we never use one particular skill in a vacuum and that a successful academic pursuit never relies on the mastery of a single skill. As we will see later, the inability to make this distinction is one of the weaknesses I encountered while teaching in England.
Ultimately, I believe that assessment data is critical because when it is gathered and communicated effectively, it provides a snapshot of information about a student’s ability in a subject, at a particular moment, relative to a predetermined set of skills. The aim or goal of teachers is not to simply convey the content of their subject, but to use the content of their subject as a vehicle to help their students further develop foundational skills while allowing them to follow their own particular interests.
 Ken O’Connor, Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades: A Repair Kit (Toronto: Pearson Canada, 2012) pg. 4-5