002: Don’t Jump Ship – Keeping up with Assessments

Something I work towards every day is to make the classroom as effective as possible which means simplifying processes for myself and my children.  However, one area I have been unable to control, one area which has plagued teachers for a long time, are dreaded formal assessments.  Dun, dun, dun.  Here is where I take off my Classroom Teacher hat, and put on my Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCO) hat in order to appreciate the assessment process in a deeper way.

When working with children who have specific needs, I have found formal assessment invaluable.  Assessments turned into comprehensive reports can help SENCOs and Classroom Teachers identify what a child needs for support, and it helps to track the child’s progress over time.  Assessment can help determine if interventions being used work, or do not work.  Simple, right?  Here’s the rub.  There are a plethora of summative assessments in education, and there are many companies selling their assessments as the greatest on the market.

Too many schools I have worked for had a problem finding assessments for their needs, and switching assessments each year.  This not only creates confusion, but it is detrimental to the education of children.  To be honest, I scream a little inside when I see a school which has three different standardised assessments for a subject, and switch the assessments every year because a teacher, administrator, or parent complains about the results.  I’ve worked with some schools where the person in charge of assessments had gone to a conference, found a great new assessment package, and moved the school to it within a term… AHHHHHH!

This goes beyond making things too complicated.  You see, the purpose of assessment is to track a child’s progress over a long period of time.  Yet each assessment from different companies are marked on a slightly different scale, population, or set of rules.  Considering standardised assessments, they are marked against a specific sample of children across a geographic area.  Do you see the problem yet?  If you change from assessment to assessment each year, the children you are assessing are not being marked on the same scale over time, thus skewing the accuracy of progress tracking.  Also, too many assessments will be cumbersome for everyone involved, thus losing the effectiveness through lack of understanding and motivation.

I’m a teacher and SENCO, so assessment is very important in my view.  I’m sure any teacher worth their salt would feel the same.  So, what’s my solution?  I propose the following, simple, steps to achieve strong assessment processes.

Step 1 – Identify Quality Summative Assessments*

This should be the most difficult, painstaking part of the process, above all else.  We are evaluating how children are achieving in school.  This creates high stakes for them, and the school.  The importance of assessment should be demonstrated through the importance of consideration.

Take time to determine what you need to assess as a school.  I would start with the core areas: English (Reading, and Writing), Maths, and Science.  Next, take time to research different standardised assessment packages.  Consider what you are willing to stick with for at least four years, what will cover the main areas you wish to address, what will give you the data you want to track, and what can be used once a term.  Three summative assessments over an academic year, per subject area you choose, should be enough, especially when you consider Step 2.  Don’t make it too complicated by choosing multiple assessments for one subject. One per subject is enough in my opinion.

Step 2 – Ensure Quality Formative Assessment*

A great way to track a child’s progress in school is through formative assessment.  Teachers will have a better idea of what progress their children are making in “Real Time”, which will make the results of their summative assessment less of a surprise.  To achieve quality formative assessment, in my opinion, is to create focused CPD on the process throughout the academic year.  This is no different than working out.  Teachers need to keep their mental muscles in shape for formative assessment so that this process becomes part of the culture.

Administrators need to trust teachers to conduct formative assessment in the classroom, and by making it part of the culture, it’s almost a guarantee it will happen.  This will take pressure off policy formation, and focus energy into quality support for teachers and children.

Step 3 – Maintain the System

If you followed Step 1 with a ninja-like focus, then this step will be tough, but manageable.  If you didn’t follow Step 1 seriously, then this step will be brutal, dare I say impossible.  Step 3 is where the title of this post comes from. Don’t jump ship.

As I stated earlier, many people I have worked with who managed assessment would switch to the latest and greatest assessment.  Sometimes this was in response to seeing something at a conference, being challenged by teachers, or parental pressures.  We’ve all been there.  It’s sometimes easier to avoid concerns by jumping ship than it is to stay the course.  I’ve done it countless times.  However, this is unhelpful with summative assessments, especially standardised assessments.

If you picked a solid standardised assessment package, be willing to stick with it for at least four years.  This will provide consistent data over a significant period of a child’s education.  If you have to switch after this period, justify the move clearly and with supporting evidence for the need to change (Go to Step 1).  Although there may be pressures to change early, if you did you homework then you can clearly justify staying with the process.

I like simple processes.  By making assessment simple and accessible, teachers will have an easier time understanding the progress of their children.  By simplifying the assessment process and sticking with a chosen summative assessment, parents will have a clear understanding of their child’s growth.

Until next time!

*For information about the difference between Summative Assessment and Formative Assessment, go to https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/formative-summative.html

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