Assessment should be the servant not the master of learning

Assessment should be more about learning and less about testing

We live in an era which is obsessed with assessment. This is not formative assessment as part of the learning process, but hard-edged high-stakes summative assessment designed to assign attainment labels to children.

There is a phrase that is often used to describe the futility of a system which is fixated on testing: “You don’t fatten a pig by weighing it.”

The future of assessment then should really be about how we use it in a more productive way, as a learning tool rather than a measuring stick.

However, the immediate future is one of unprecedented change and turbulence, which presents schools with some of the greatest challenges facing the profession.

GCSE and A level reform will raise the assessment stakes even higher. We are promised tougher courses and tougher exams but we do not know whether this extra toughness will raise educational standards. It will certainly, however, put schools and students under even more pressure.

Then there is the abolition of National Curriculum levels. Not many tears will be shed for the loss of a system which was designed to help pupils progress but which became a box-ticking exercise that assigned them labels. Was this the fault of the system, however, or the result of assessment practice driven by a culture of exacting targets and fearsome accountability?

Whatever the answer to that question, the result is that schools now face an enormous challenge in devising their own systems to assess pupil progress accurately. The government has recognized this firstly by putting in place the Commission for Assessment without Levels and, most recently the expert review of primary assessment. Useful though these reviews might be, the fact of the matter is that a mastery of assessment is amongst the highest order skills and knowledge teachers need to acquire. It is underpinned by a vast body of evidence and research.  This is a matter for professionals to lead, not governments.

Beyond these immediate issues, however, we also need to reassess our approach to assessment. It has become synonymous with testing but this is only one small part of the role that it plays as part of the learning process where it should be used to positive effect to identify strengths and weaknesses, address problems and identify where to focus attention. There are enormous pedagogical benefits to informed assessment practice in the classroom. We need to refocus on the right kind of assessment to support and develop classroom practice.

Teachers need to feel supported to develop rich formative assessment in classrooms, such as probing questioning in order to support and improve pupils’ learning and shape future teaching rather than over-measure and track everything.

To quote Dylan Wiliam: ‘assessment should be the servant not the master of learning’.

ASCL’s vision for a self-improving system puts assessment at the heart of educational practice. We need to ensure that all teachers are equipped with the skills and a profound understanding of the theory and practice of assessment.

We need a new approach to curriculum development with the establishment of an independent commission to shape the core curriculum and schools innovating beyond that to suit the needs of their students, and we need to make sure that assessment – the positive kind which aids learning – is an integral part of that process.

And we need to develop a profession-led assessment ethics framework which gives every school leader and teacher a clear framework and empowers them to challenge bad practice.

Assessment should be something we embrace as a means of raising standards by improving our understanding of students’ learning rather than a set of measures to be feared.