Formative assessment: an opportunity not to be missed

Guest blog post by Sarah Haythornthwaite, Marketing Director, Renaissance

By Sarah Haythornthwaite, Marketing Director, Renaissance

Teachers work hard. Beyond teaching – teachers spend hours planning lessons, attending department meetings and events, conducting assessments, marking and pupil reviews. It’s no secret that teachers face pressures to ensure they are recording assessment results to demonstrate what they have worked hard to achieve. They also need the outputs of assessment to view pupils’ progress and identify where help might be needed. On the other hand, teachers must avoid the long and arduous processes, as set out below, that have traditionally achieved this.

It is true that some assessment practices and data collection exercises have strayed from the objective of improving pupil learning and instead create unnecessary work for teachers. However, the current dialogue about assessment and data collection risks avoiding the opportunities provided by good online formative assessment.

Undertaking good assessment and reducing teacher workload are not contradictory objectives. Online formative assessment, when used effectively, can help pupils get what they need from their learning experience, validate teachers’ judgment about what is needed and give teachers more time to focus on individual pupils. Moreover, the standardisation of scores that good digital assessment offers can allow for comprehensive nationwide comparison on a range of factors and different contexts.

When it comes to assessment, teachers’ time is too often spent tediously inputting results into spreadsheets, running comparisons against past results and conducting in-class analysis. Teachers can spend hours on this, and the results can be unreliable, subjective and uninformative. Cumbersome assessment practices also create more work for pupils. Teachers know all this yet are compelled to do it to meet system-wide targets. This is not why people become teachers.

This trend has been recognised across the system, but there is a risk that this prompts an ‘anti-data’ policy that can do real damage to teachers’ ability to help pupils. In its new inspection framework, for example, Ofsted informed schools that they do not intend to look at internal assessment data at all. The Department for Education’s Workload Advisory Group published a report, called Making Data Work, which made a range of recommendations that aim to minimise the amount of data being recorded in schools. The objective must be not to abandon data but to record it only where it informs teaching.

Assessment practices that can help

Despite this ‘audit culture’, there are assessment practices that can help teachers free up time, understand pupils’ needs and provide a more tailored, pupil-focused learning experience. They can do this, for example, by standardising the format and results, consolidating the marking process and visualising results in a digestible and informative way.

When used effectively, good online formative assessment does all the heavy lifting so that teachers don’t have to. It can, for example, allow for a class to be tested within 20 minutes, immediately delivering visualised whole-class analysis.

It can and should provide actionable information about where pupils are going, how close they are to their goals and what they need to do to get there. Conversely, it can highlight pupils who are struggling, how and where they need to improve and provide the standardised data for national benchmarking.

Technology can help overcome challenges

If teachers are hoping to use online formative assessment to improve pupils’ learning while cutting the number of tasks on their to-do list, there are many ways that technology can help overcome their challenges:

  1. Teachers should review all the capabilities that their formative assessment technology offers. Some provide services that cover the entire assessment journey, and teachers may be surprised to find that they have the solutions to their challenges in the tools they already use. If an assessment provider does not offer that solution, there is most likely another that does.
  2. Online formative assessment also works best when it is built into curriculum planning. This allows assessment technology to support teachers in following their curriculum objectives seamlessly and can help to meet key checkpoints throughout the school year. Many schools do not design their curricula in this way and do not benefit from the breadth and depth of the information available.
  3. Schools can also use online formative assessment technology to view an individual’s learning across different subjects and classes. This can help gain a deeper understanding of what is driving a pupil’s attitudes and behaviours and may highlight ways of overcoming barriers to progress.
  4. The information provided by online formative assessment should not only be used to assess performance at an individual and class level but should inform schools’ resourcing decisions. Schools can make decisions about where extra resource might be needed or where teachers might need to be moved in order to meet the needs of the pupils. This has the obvious benefit of improving pupils’ learning while also benefiting teachers by putting them where they perform best.
  5. Pupils’ education can only be improved by data if teachers act on the information they are given. Teachers should always think about what they can do with this data and, if it cannot be used, it should not be recorded.

Assessment will always be important for teachers and pupils. While it has played a part of the workload challenge that teachers face, getting assessment right can also be a part of the solution.


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