Sarah Wright, Senior Lecturer at Edge Hill University and a practising primary teacher discusses why assessment reforms can reveal some powerful insights into improving student progression through capturing student understanding.

The Unseen Opportunity of Assessment Reforms

The Assessment Reforms which came into force in September are quite simply impossible to ignore – not least because they have a direct impact on the way we do our jobs, but more importantly – because they give us a real opportunity to actually change the way we do things… for the better.

As expected, the reforms have attracted a lot of attention, both during the consultation period and now they are fully operational. However, what was less expected, at least from my own perspective, is the general reaction from schools. The freedom which comes with the territory of the reforms seems to be causing a lot of teachers concern, and based on my experiences to date, this concern is being driven by the fear of the unknown.

Nothing to fear

Unlike many changes made to the education system, the Assessment Reforms (in my opinion), are based on solid justifications. Underpinning the development of the Assessment Reforms is the report from Michael Wilshaw, which back in June 2013 clearly spelled out that it is the ‘Unseen Children’ who the education system is letting down.

Whilst this seems to be quite a hidden document itself, in stark contrast to the final reforms which have been implemented; there is a lot we can learn from the report in terms of why assessment needs to change… and how this can actually help us as teachers to help students better achieve their full potential.

What are we assessing?

Assessment has traditionally put greater emphasis on a summative approach, which generally benchmarks students’ progress against ‘levels’. But, as is recognised by the ‘Unseen Child’ report, not everyone starts from the same baseline. So if we’re all starting from different points, is it really fair to measure us all by the same finishing line?

As we all know, formative assessment is an excellent teaching tactic to support student progression. It allows us to better respond to individual learning needs and supports students with developing at their own pace. It’s also great for reducing the stress and anxiety sometimes associated with summative assessment because students become desensitised to the assessment experience, i.e. it is normalised.

The Assessment Reforms have put renewed emphasis on formative assessment and put the power back with the schools, and teachers, to decide how best to measure progress. In time, as teachers we will no longer be judged on how many students achieve benchmarked levels. Instead, we’ll be judged on the actual progress our students make.

But with class sizes only getting bigger and administration burdens increasing, how can we possibly continually assess students to effectively monitor progress and adjust learning programmes accordingly?

Turning to technology

Having had the benefit of using interactive technologies as part of my Initial Teacher Training (ITT), I was fortunate to graduate as a confident user of solutions which are designed specifically to support teaching and learning – and also make life that little bit easier. The rate at which classroom technologies are evolving is phenomenal, and even I have seen a lot of change since qualifying.

The reality is that technology has a fundamental role to play in the roll out of the Assessment Reforms. Not at policy level, of course, but in the classroom – where it matters most. The difference between having technologies which facilitate assessment in the classroom, and not, is the difference between having complete visibility of every student or having a partial picture of their baseline, potential and progress.

Learner Response Systems have been around for some time and thanks to the opportunities during my ITT, I’ve had extensive experience of using ActivExpression to support formative assessment activities. Its multiple choice, sequential ordering and free text response features allow me to pose a wide range of question types to students – and obtain immediate feedback on exactly where they are in their learning. I’m guaranteed a response from everyone in the room and can even set the session to be self-paced, which means the students can progress through a question set at their own speed.

Using technology to support assessment activity is an interactive experience for the students, and ensures that as a teacher I am engaging every student in the room. But it’s much more than that. Technology is the key to collecting valuable data, which is essentially what you need to effectively measure progress.

Big data

You might have heard the phrase ‘big data’ banded around in the media, but in the context of Assessment Reforms, data will be your saviour. Historically data collection would mean the painful collation of workbooks and then manually marking these. It doesn’t have to be this way anymore!

Technology can give you the tools to collect data as a by-product of your teaching, leaving you to focus on supporting students in realising their true potential.

More importantly, there are free tools out there that can collect data and enhance your lessons. One such tool is ClassFlow. We’ve started using this in our ITT sessions and I personally use it with my own Year 5 classes. All you need to do is sign up for a free account and you can start building and delivering front of class lessons on your IWB or interactive flat-panel display straight away. When you feel comfortable and ready, it’s easy to move this on to formative assessment as long as you have student devices to use, e.g. iPads, laptops, tablets.

Just like ActivExpression, you can run self-paced learning exercises and ask for various responses from the students, but the possibilities extend even further as you can push content from the front of class out to student devices – and they can update and push back again for sharing. Crucially, all of this rich data on student progress and understanding is captured without you having to do anything extra.

This data is real insight into student understanding and potential. In the very least you can use it to inform planning, prepare reports and identify who is progressing well and who is not. The point is, you will have the data there ready for when you need it. It is real data on real students – not a benchmark against a national average.

The Assessment Reforms are here, and they have given us an opportunity to make a difference. Don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith and try something new – I guarantee you will be pleasantly surprised.

Sarah Wright is a Senior Lecturer at Edge Hill University and a practising primary teacher. A member of the Promethean Advocate network and a commissioned writer for the TES, Sarah has extensive understanding of the positive impact collaborative technologies can have on teaching and learning.