I have been thinking about how we might persuade colleagues to revisit their initial approaches to assessment at work. It is only once we truly understand the ingrained habits and assumptions that one can begin to encourage a genuine reorientation. I am also conscious that recent education debate is dominated by a so-called ‘progressive’ versus ‘neo-traditionalist’ dichotomy. Believing, habitually, that where two opposed positions are set out, the best approaches usually emerge from the grey area between, I want to better understand teacher’s responses to ‘new’ assessment theories to critically interrogate them and ensure that we are moving in the right direction.
My titular question is derived from a discussion with a senior colleague who had been raising questions of assessment with the English and Maths faculties. He mused that introducing new ideas about assessment might be a challenge, given an engrained belief that staff could instinctively feel the grade of a piece of work. This coincided with two separate colleagues asking me, last week, what grade they thought a piece of work: one was a history essay, another an Extended Project. This suggested to me that such a belief spread further across the school, and I’d expect across the profession more widely. You only have to look at lesson activities that offer students grade based learning objectives as evidence of this.
I wasn’t sure of what to make of this proposition. It seemed logical, on the face of it. Could colleagues, who have been in the profession for years, if not decades (as most of mine have), not build up a reliable method of applying grade based descriptors from the sheer volume of exemplars they had seen in their careers? This seems highly probable, in the case of Maths, where a quality model of progression prevails. Questions can be ‘grade seven’ or ‘grade nine’ skill-levels in Maths. This is not so in the humanities or perhaps in English.
Still, surely a teacher could look at enough essays to sense which engage in the analysis of sufficient complexity to merit a higher grade than another? My gut instinct is that teachers could do this. In essence, teachers build in certain expectations, certain criteria into their minds to operate some form of comparative judgement. But is it desirable? I’m not sure, but the issues seem to be as follows:
- Colleagues who believe they can instinctively apply a grade to a piece of work are typically experienced and in positions of middle management. This is not the case, necessarily, for those in their department who are perhaps considerably less experienced. Middle managers need to provide the structures to enable these colleagues to assess work accurately, and ascertain its particular quality relative to the rest of the class, year-group or cohort.
- However experienced a teaching colleague might be, the new 9-1 specifications are radically different to their predecessors. This might be true of some subjects, more than others, but as a ‘Modern World historian’ the new rubrics represent a genuine revolution in both content and assessment structures. Teachers are likely to have mastered the progression model, but clearly they cannot assess work against externally set grades at this stage in time.
- For schools and departments to generate data to plan teaching and interventions, summative judgements about students’ work needs to be reliably produced. I mean this in the sense that even if every ‘dart thrown’ is wide of the bullseye, it should be wide by the same amount. This is more likely to be the case with work that is assessed by a department, rather than individual teachers, and this is best facilitated with methods such as comparative judgement, rather than teachers awarding grades against an internal gut judgement and/or level based criteria.
- Even if you could instinctively suggest that an extended piece of writing, for example, was a particular grade, is this assessment part of a broader set of structures that allows for a skill-level and content-level analysis of a pupil’s knowledge that is updated in real time. The belief that you can give a piece of work a grade, the task in question must be of the sort that matches the final exam. It suggests a teaching approach that is not breaking down the skills and knowledge required and building these up, gradually, over time. Instead, students are being subjected to terminal exam style questions, which Christodoulou has demonstrated to us distorts the teaching process and is inherently inaccurate where teachers begin to ‘teach to the test.’
I’m also left with a desire to swing at the biggest assumption of all laying under the titular question. Why would you ever want to generate a grade against a student? Is it even necessary? Questions for those smarter, and more important, than myself.