A Critical Reflection of England’s Assessment Policies and Practices [Part 2]

Part 2: The strengths of assessment policies in England

I would now like to discuss the strengths of the assessment policies I encountered in England. One of the most useful policies I came across during my time in England was the use of learning objectives. Learning objectives are statements that communicate, in simple language, the point or purpose of a given lesson. These objectives are given to students either through the subtle use of an inquiry question as a lesson title or directly stated along with a title. Students are always required to write down these objectives in their notes for future reference.

The benefit of learning objectives is that they clearly illustrate to the student, right from the very start, the goal or purpose of the lesson. An example of a subtle use of a learning objective could be a lesson title such as, “What made Elizabeth the 1st a good king?”. Almost immediately, students will point out what they believe to be a spelling error in the title. When it is stated that, in fact, no mistake has been made, the students’ curiosity is peaked. This title tells the students through inference the objective for the lesson will be to look at the reign of Elizabeth the 1st, examine and define what makes a good king, and finally how Elizabeth met these characteristics.

The reason I believe learning objectives are effective when thinking about assessment policies is because they represent an opportunity to clearly tie in the desired skills that the lesson intends to develop. While the example of the Elizabeth the 1st lesson title may be enough for a high-ability class to grasp, learning objectives can also be differentiated to suit the needs of lower-ability classes by directly stating the skills to be developed during the coarse of the lesson. This has great value because a student who knows that they lack a particular skill, which has been identified through detailed feedback from a formative assessment, can use their notes as a reference by skimming through their book looking for lessons where this particular skill has been emphasized and developed and can use these notes to build upon their knowledge. When done correctly, learning objectives allow teachers to communicate to students the skills that are going to be developed and eventually assessed, while also presenting an opportunity to stand as sign posts to aid students understanding after the initial lesson has occurred.

A second strength of the assessment policies I encountered in England, related to school guidelines that concerned themselves with the way students take notes in lessons, as well as the frequency and methodology of the marking in student’s workbooks. Each student that I taught in England was given a subject specific workbook to use at the start of the year with the expectation that each lesson they would receive their workbook and write in the lesson title, date, and learning objective, while waiting for further instructions. At the end of lesson, students return their books to their instructor who holds them until the next lesson.

This system, while having the obvious weakness of not allowing students to take their notes home to revise or complete activities such as homework, was ultimately a success. Allowing students to take notes home can result in notes being lost or damaged, and although it is useful to take notes home for revision, I believe that homework serves little purpose, as we need to focus student’s attention towards topics when we are around to guide them directly.[1] This system also had the added benefit of allowing teachers to have a student’s notes on hand for marking purposes.

Besides allocating money toward providing students with subject specific workbooks, all of the schools I encountered in England had clear policies that outlined the frequency of when students workbooks should be marked, as well as the manner in which marking should take place. That being said, I found these policies to be sometimes problematic, as I did not believe that the marking teachers were asked to do always had merit. I do believe, however, that it is worthwhile to have policies that dictate the frequency of marking across a school, while also having consistency in the way work is being evaluated both formatively and summatively.

To return briefly to the point regarding the merit of some of the marking being undertaken, I would argue that at times it felt as if teachers were being asked to evaluate every page of notes a student produced, instead of encouraging teachers to gear specific tasks to students with the express purpose of future formative evaluation and detailed feedback.

A final example of an assessment policy I found effective while working in England dealt with the consistency of marking across teachers. When it comes to summatively assessing a piece of work, most schools had very well defined guidelines as to what they were looking for from a completed piece of work. This clarity allowed for very little discrepancy when assessing a single piece of work across a department. This was particularly true when it came to GCSE exam style questions, as they have very well defined criteria for what an answer ought to contain. Having such specific criteria ensures consistency among marking, regardless of the educator assigned to do the marking. While consistency is valuable, I felt that, at times, marking was more focused on form rather than function. What I mean is that instead of creatively demonstrating their knowledge and understanding of a topic, students were better served to memorize the different expectations for each type of question they would face and then use their knowledge to form an answer that accurately met the question criteria; we will examine this problem in greater depth later in part three.

[1] Although I would like to discuss this topic at greater length, ultimately, I feel that it is beyond the scope of this reflection and not particular to my experience in England.

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