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Initial assessment in English - a different approach

We've all heard the transition day assessment horror stories - a sprightly bunch of 11 year old students head up to their local Secondary school for a day of 'big school', excited about meeting new teachers. And then the assessment starts.

3-5 days of non-stop assessment in all curriculum areas, regardless of SAT result or Y6 teacher report.

In FE, it is much the same - students (having sat upwards of 30 GCSE exams months earlier) are asked to sit usually lengthy initial assessments to gauge their level of English and maths (more on that here). If resitting either, many colleges also task students with completing mock exams in opening lessons.

I suppose there is an argument for it - we have been brainwashed into believing that more data equals 'better', which will impress Ofsted by showing we have a better knowledge of student ability, so can plan more effectively (and achieve better outcomes).

In schools, where accountability is everywhere, it can be difficult to challenge this approach. However, in FE (where school over-assessment translates into poor engagement, attendance and achievement) something has to change and in 2019/20 , our English team will be trialling something different.

In 2018/19, we found that because of attendance issues, it was extremely difficult to get a baseline or final assessment for lots of students (and they actively told us they knew when assessments were and missed them on purpose). If we decided to review their assessments, this also meant additional planning with as many as half of the class not completing assessments in the first place.

I'd read a lot about low stakes quizzes/ assessment, retrieval practice and hoped that this would provide a solution. The problem with this was that although lots of practitioners on Twitter and beyond discussed how amazing it was, no one seemed to be able to provide any concrete examples. As a result, below is my own ham-fisted attempt:

Question 1 - 5 of first 10 question baseline assessment

The low stakes quizzes take two forms:

1. Slightly more formal, standardised 10 question quizzes at the beginning and end of each half term, which are completed by all staff and assesses student knowledge on a range of GCSE skills. The results of this will inform short to medium term planning;

2. Day to day low stakes quizzes (roughly 5-7 questions) which will be a mixture of teacher differentiated questions in the format above/ below.

Question 6 - 10 of first 10 question baseline assessment

The main discussion centred around how (or even if) we should track the 10-question low stakes quiz results. After discussion, we've decided to 'covertly' track results: feedback given 'traditionally', with a mark in student books and we would track and compare without sharing comparisons with students.

Following some excellent points in the book 'Boys Don't Try' (by Matt Pinkett and Mark Roberts) about using competition in lessons to get boys to perform (essentially, it works for those who 'win', but is damaging for the majority of others), we're being very careful not to turn the day-to-day quizzes into competitions.

By doing this, we hope that we can get the same understanding of student strengths and needs whilst stripping out the elements which breed apathy and disengagement. We also hope that this will give us more time to actually teach the students - if assessment takes 10-15 minutes instead of a lesson, twice per half term, we should save roughly a week of lessons over a year.

The third benefit is teacher workload - these quizzes can be marked in a couple of minutes, as opposed to lengthy assessments which need constant checking of a mark scheme and potentially lengthy feedback also.

None of this is by any means set in stone and we will be meeting regularly to discuss how we can innovate, adapt and develop every part of it. It could well be that we get to October half term and decide to change every aspect (or even go back to 'traditional' assessment). Hopefully, students take to it, we get valuable feedback to inform planning and we can use the extra time to help students actually enjoy lessons. Let's find out!


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