Assessment Obsessions

Earlier this month, I was contacted by my son’s school for permission to allow some of his examination papers (GCSE) to be sent off for re-marking. He had done pretty well in them (a B grade, and then a 4 and a 6 in the new system) but was only three marks or less from the next grade up.

It was actually his permission the school was seeking but, frankly, he couldn’t give a stuff. His aim had been to get into the sixth-form college of his choice, and he had achieved that. Thanks to his Dad’s healthy(?) cynicism, he knows that these GCSEs now have imperceptible value for the remainder of his life. Time to move on.

The school, however, is in a different position. Each change to a grade leads to a difference in the progress coefficient, both for him individually and for the cohort as a whole. It affects the overall attainment profile for each faculty and, potentially, the evaluation and renumeration of teachers and subject leaders. From being of minor value for the most important person in all this – my son – it becomes of acute importance to the school and the staff concerned.

Now, let’s get things straight. The school could have sold my son short. It may not have been rigorous in its monitoring. It may have been complacent in thinking he was a certain ‘A’ grade student when in fact he was hovering just below. Possible, but unlikely.

The important word here is ‘could’. There ‘could’ also have been a myriad of other factors which meant he missed his ‘A’ grade by three marks. Here are some:-

  • Nerves got the better of him (unlikely, knowing my son)
  • He forgot to read the question properly (far more likely)
  • He turned over one page by mistake and missed a whole set of questions
  • He slept badly the night before
  • He was feeling ill
  • He missed a week’s revision the month before because of a family holiday
  • He has reached his zenith for now – maybe in time he may be able to develop greater knowledge in this subject.
  • The dog ate his homework (the old ones are the best)

This is all before we get started on the legitimacy of the test itself. It is incredibly difficult to set up a fair test, and it is nigh on impossible to ensure parity in the administration of them up and down the country. More variables.

But sitting dolefully looking down on all this mess is the professional judgement of the teacher. Surely, if Teacher A has been teaching my son for two years, he/she knows only too well what level he has reached. This assessment is not only the most legitimate, it’s the one with only one variable – the competence of the teacher.

And if we withdraw our trust in the competence of the teacher (and those that oversee that work in school), we are a very sad society.

Trust is essential. If my son’s teachers feel that he has been assessed as an ‘A’ grade student during his time at the school in this given subject, then surely they are the correct and legitimate people to make this judgement?

This might be excessively naïve, but it’s also excessively right.

The whole purpose of assessment is as a tool, no more, to assist the teacher in modifying and adjusting their teaching and curriculum for an individual, group or cohort. It is an integral part of teaching itself, not a vulgar bolt-on. I would be far happier if, at his school, my son’s teachers were engaged in lengthy discussions with the sixth-form college, passing on their professional opinions about the strengths and weaknesses of the subject he is now to study for the ‘A’ level course.

This happens less and less because the recipient of assessment information has no trust in the validity of the information sent up. Just ask the headteachers of stand-alone Junior schools.

What kind of society have we become where a group of hard-working and experienced teachers have to spend their summer submitting test papers for re-sits in order to squeeze out minuscule improvements as extra proof that they are doing their job properly?

In a few weeks, I am taking part in a conference in China regarding this assessment obsession. It will be fascinating to hear the views of educators from across the world.

I will be telling them that assessment is the domain of the professional, not the technocrat. In the famous words of Vote Leave, us teachers need to ‘take back control’.



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