Let’s not make the same mistake again

Actually it’s not really very complicated. Put simply, we should not have let the recording and reporting part of ARR (Assessment, Recording and Reporting) distort the assessment bit. It’s the tail wagging the dog and it was, and is, a mistake. However, the trick of learning from our mistakes is to recognise the mistake in the first place and this is hard if it is the daily practice in most schools.

I spent Saturday with some old friends talking about the new National Curriculum and, of course, we discussed assessment and standards and the absence of levels. The key problem is not levels descriptions: it never was. The mistake was to try to turn them into a number or grade to record progress that could be sampled and fed into a spreadsheet every six weeks. This simply doesn’t work and the level statement reduced to a number becomes a meaningless average of different strengths and weaknesses. Everyone knew/knows that just grading work is not good assessment but the level descriptions provided a spurious veneer of objective criteria and the spreadsheets were irresistable. So in almost every secondary school teachers are providing the numbers to be fed into SIMS knowing they are simply vague generalisations masquerading as facts.

Perhaps it would not be so bad if it was just about recording and reporting simplistic data – harmless in itself. But, in fact, it damages and undermines proper assessment by focussing attention only on the average (a meaningless number), and fails to present a profile of strengths and weaknesses (useful information). Unfortunately the abolition of levels by the government is unlikely to stop the demand for a simple number every six weeks to fill the spreadsheets and, theoretically to record progress. The practice spread virally and has never really been questioned. Partly because there is an appearance (ethos?) of haste and urgency and any close monitoring has an impact on those being monitored. But it does not really stand up to scrutiny and this particular emperor has no clothes.

The solution does not seem so very difficult. It simply requires a recording and reporting system which records several numbers at appropriate times rather than a single number every six weeks. This would respond to the needs of assessment and benefit students rather than to the needs of a spreadsheet in the interests of monitoring. By recording an assessment for each key strand of the subject, at the time when the evidence was available, the system of recording and reporting would support good assessment practice and provide teachers and students with a regularly updated, accurate profile of achievement which would be both meaningful and useful.

Well it seemed like common sense on Saturday. Now we just need a head with common sense who is determined not to make the same mistake again.

About Dan

Senior Advisor, Art Inspector, Member of the Expert Advisory Group for Art, Consultant working with NSEAD, IOE, QCA, UCE, UOG. Currently lecturer at UCL working on a project in Kazakhstan to develop text books for a new art curriculum.
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4 Responses to Let’s not make the same mistake again

  1. Paul Carney says:

    Some excellent points Dan and of course I agree with most of them. Though I’m not sure that more numbers and assessment strands are the way forward. In my own classroom I always try to get the students to apply assessment in the way an artist does when looking at their own work: What is working in this piece and what isn’t? I understand a desire for a benchmark, a measuring stick, but I’m more interested in a student being aware of where they are and what they need to do to get to where they want to be. The more I do the teaching of art the less I like levels numbers and grades.
    If Gove gets his way and we become a ‘hobby’ subject it might be an opportunity to reinvent our subject away from these rubrics and numbers into more meaningful words and advice.

    • Dan says:

      I think the important thing is for students to be clear about the criteria. I was reminded the other day about assessment being likened to the work of the informed critic (Eisner). One task of the critic is to identify and illuminate the relevant criteria to be brought to play with regard to the work under consideration. I believe a really significant part of the process is for the teacher and student to have a sense of the conceptual framework of the subject because it is this which defines the different aspects of studying the subject that make it worth doing and in which students can be expected to achieve success. To be frank I don’t really mind what the model is: it is likely to involve about four or five aspects linked together in different ways. But I do think there must be a commonly understood (in the school) model, without it I think we probably regress to marking technique alone – by default.

      I have always agreed with Prof. Black et al that comment based assessment and AfL is infinitely better than grades, marks, numbers. In an ideal world reporting and recording would record/report an informed and helpful comment related to the different aspects of the conceptual framework being used by the school. This would mirror and reinforce the discussion in classrooms everyday. So I agree with your last point.

      I guess the subject is going to be reinvented anyway and this will mean another shuffling of the chairs and tables – but they will probably be the same tables and chairs albeit with different names. But as we reinvent the wheel we should try to be clear about our language and distinguish between marking (of work), assessment (of student achievement and learning), formative and summative reporting and recording etc etc. Back to my point in the blog, reporting and recording won’t go away but it would be better if it only recorded summatively achievement over time, in the separately identifiable key aspects of the conceptual framework, at those times when the evidence for assessment and judgement is available. It would be best if it were reported as a comment but we all know it will have to be something that will be recorded in a spreadsheet – probably a number. Formative assessment which happens in classrooms everyday (which probably includes marking) – and which probably uses the same conceptual framework, is a different thing and should have nothing to do with spreadsheets.

      So I guess I agree with you about less numbers, but I don’t know that that will mean less assessment and I probably disagree with you about the need for assessment strands. I think they are needed to give students a sense of the breadth of their learning. But thanks for commenting it helps me work out what I do mean. Best Dan

  2. As always Dan- you hit the nail square on the head.

  3. Dan says:

    PS Ian Middleton HMI in his report Making a Mark also comments on how some generic whole school policies and practices undermine subject integrity and quality.

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