In which I realise I’ve been losing the plot

I’m starting to think that I’ve lost the plot.

Why have I been worrying about what and how to assess, when I’ve said all along that the real question is ‘who is the assessment for’? I was worrying about this when I re-read an article by Alfie Kohn, “The trouble with Rubrics”. In this he says:

In fact, when the hows of assessment pre-occupy us, they tend to chase the whys back into the shadows. So let’s shine a light over there and ask: What’s our reason for trying to evaluate the quality of students’ efforts? It matters whether the objective is to (1) rank kids against one another, (2) provide an extrinsic inducement for them to try harder, or (3) offer feedback that will help them become more adept at, and excited about, what they’re doing. Devising more efficient rating techniques—and imparting a scientific luster to those ratings—may make it even easier to avoid asking this question. In any case, it’s certainly not going to shift our rationale away from (1) or (2) and toward (3). (p14)

So before trying to devise yet more simple – or complex – assessment schemes, I’m going to need to go back to the question ‘who is the assessment for’? Is it for the pupils (Kohn’s number 3, or possibly 2 as well), is it the teacher, to know how well the pupils are doing, or is it ‘the system’, which wants and needs assessment data? Until this question is answered, we can’t really say why we are assessing, or what the purpose of the data is.

Now, I also happen to think there’s a lot more than Kohn’s 3 reasons for why to assess, actually, but even so, the question of why? does need addressing. Yes, I know about data-tracking, and I know about showing progress and progression, and I know about evaluating learning, and so on, which means that oft-times assessment is doing what Boud (2000) referred to as “double duty”.

This week we’ve had the clear statement from Robin Hammerton of Ofsted that:

 …using levels and sub levels to try to prove pupils’ ongoing progress in music doesn’t work, as Ofsted has pointed out many times. It is usually superficial, time wasting and neither reliable nor valid. It is most certainly not any kind of ‘Ofsted requirement’. To be absolutely clear, our inspectors do not expect to see it.

 I’m bound to return to this statement in future blogs, but it points out that assessing progress using the NC levels doesn’t work. So, back to the opening question, why is assessment taking place?

Once we know that, then we can start to work on suitable systems. And, yes, I’ve been guilty of not taking my own advice.



Boud, D. (2000). Sustainable Assessment: rethinking assessment for the learning society. Studies in Continuing Education, 22(2), 151-167.

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2 Responses to In which I realise I’ve been losing the plot

  1. Ally Daubney says:

    Thanks Martin. I’ve been thinking along the same lines recently because I’m really bothered that much of the attention in discussing assessment, and the kinds of work which are funded (e.g. through the recent awards made by government to schools) still seem to focus upon the summative judgments and how to provide data to feed a ‘system’.

    On the other side of this, I’ve become more and more aware that the ‘power’ of formative assessment often gets lost in this, and that finding ways to work with teachers to develop their repertoire of formative assessment strategies, and also their cognitive engagement with this this, can really help them and their pupils.

    In order to help with this, I’ve been working with a small number of specialist and generalist teachers to demonstrate different scenarios in practical ways to provide them with new ideas for establishing what children know and can do, and helping them to think out ‘what next’, during the course of their normal teaching (i.e. not as assessment lessons or as specific tasks which are aimed at assessment). Of course many teachers do this already, and it is just another way of showing them that ‘to teach is to assess’, as Swanwick put it. It is just that some teachers need more encouragement to have confidence in their judgements and it help teachers get beyond just ‘delivering’ what it says on the lesson plan or from the particular book or scheme which they are using.

    It relates very closely to the ideas on the ISM framework of making judgments about the extent to which pupils can do something, and encourages teachers to think about ascertaining this through their observations of children working. To help them further, I’ve been creating and writing short assessment scenarios, two examples of which are given below:

    Example 1 – Internalising the beat – year 1/2
    To help pupils internalise the beat, once familiar with the song being sung, use traffic lights so that they only sing out loud when the green light is showing and ‘sing in their head’ when on red.

    Formative Assessment guidance:
    In this activity, pupils are developing skills relating to internalising the beat of the music. Once familiar, the traffic lights will be used and pupils should only sing out loud when the traffic lights are on green. When on red, the song should be ‘carry on’ but only in the pupils’ heads, so that when the lights turn green again, they join in at the correct part of the song. By listening to their singing and observing / noting which pupils are out of time / in the wrong place in the song / not singing at all, the teacher should be able to gauge how well pupils can join in at the appropriate times. It is very important that the teacher models this task well and makes sure that pupils understand what they need to do.

    Can pupils:
    1. start and stop at the right times, joining in when the lights are green and stopping when they are red?
    2. Join in with the correct part of the song? Or are they singing the part of the song which followed directly on from where they stopped singing? Or are they our of time?

    What next?
    How will you support pupils who cannot yet do one or both of these? How will you extend the learning/ skills/ challenge for pupils who can do both?

    Example 2 – from a cross-curricular unit on food and drink for year 1 / 2
    This is linked to some music and art work on Archimbaldo’s fruit-inspired faces

    Bring in some food for pupils to guess what it is by touching it without seeing it. Ask them to think up describing words for the texture (e.g. squelchy, hard, soft, rough).
    Cut open a particular fruit (e.g. an orange) and get pupils to think about all of the different textures in this fruit and to feel all the different textures.

    Give each pupil a musical instrument (or they can choose) and the instructions that they should find a different sound on that instrument for each texture on the orange, and then some time to try out their ideas. Observe them whilst they are doing this, and listen in on their informal discussions. Ask a few pupils to demonstrate / share ideas (verbally and/or through talking) about the sounds, how they were made and how they were changed.

    Using a picture of different part of an orange (or other fruit), ‘conduct’ your way around the picture and ask pupils to join in accordingly, playing their different sounds for each part of the orange.

    Assessment guidance:
    In this activity, pupils are encouraged to explore different sounds on instruments to relate to different textures on a piece of fruit. For example, they may shake a tambourine for the outside of an orange peel, rub the tambourine for the inside of the fruit, and hit/strike the tambourine for the pips. This activity does not seek right or wrong answers, but encourages pupils to try things out and make changes. Though observing, listening to responses and discussion and questioning pupils as appropriate, the teacher should be able to establish whether or not pupils have ideas about how changes can be made and demonstrate these.

    Can pupils:
    1. Change sounds on their instrument to reflect different fruit textures?
    2. Demonstrate this by making different sounds on the instruments during a whole class ‘performance’ conducting your way round a picture?
    2. Justify why they have chosen a particular sound to represent a particular ‘orange’(or other fruit) texture?

    What next?
    How can you encourage pupils to make other subtle adaptions to the sounds they have made, for example to change the dynamics of the sounds as well as the way in which they are played on the instruments? What else will they change? How can you encourage this?

  2. Terry Loane says:

    I have just discovered your blog, Martin, and I think your post on issues around ‘assessment’ is really interesting. I don’t think you are ‘losing the plot’ at all. On the contrary I believe you are focusing our attention on a key issue when you ask ‘who is the assessment for?’ But my answer is to say that we should be framing the question differently. I believe we should avoid using the word ‘assessment’ altogether when we are talking about the different types of communication that go on between teachers, learners and third parties. Using the word assessment leads us to confuse two very different activities: ‘assessing’ and ‘reporting’. There is more about this in Chapter 2 of my recently published (and remarkably inexpensive!) book ‘Using Technology to Gather, Store and Report Evidence of Learning’. Let me give a brief summary here. The process of assessing is an integral part of teaching and learning and cannot be separated from it. As Ally, quoting Keith Swanwick, has said in her comment: “to teach is to assess”. In my book I give an imaginary example, but based closely on my own personal experience of having recently started to have piano lessons again after a break of many years:

    “Imagine the scene at the start of John’s first lesson… He sits at the piano, raises his arms, and begins to play. Simone has never heard John play the piano before and she knows virtually nothing about his playing apart from some assumptions based on the piece he has chosen to play (the first movement of a sonata by Mozart). Now, the instant John starts playing, Simone starts assessing. She assesses the sound he makes, how accurately he plays, she assesses how he copes with the more difficult sections of the piece, she assesses how he chooses to interpret the music. When John stops playing, Simone gives him feedback, explaining how he can improve…” (Loane, 2014, p.9)

    That is what I mean by assessing.

    Reporting to third parties on what an individual learner has done and can do is something completely different. It might:

    “… take the form of a test result, a testimonial, an exam grade, a qualification or a portfolio… And it is this process of reporting, rather than assessing itself, that is being utterly transformed by developments in digital and online technology…” (Loane, 2014, p.7)

    Now some might say that we already have terms that describe these two different processes: ‘formative assessment’ and ‘summative assessment’. But my view is that the two activities are so different that using the same noun and just changing the adjective is not good enough. It makes teachers think that they should use the same sorts of tools for assessing and for reporting and I feel sure that that is where much of the problem lies. I think I may be saying something similar here to Ally when she writes “I’ve become more and more aware that the ‘power’ of formative assessment often gets lost in this…” If we decide not to use the word assessment at all but to use more accurate language like ‘assessing’ and ‘reporting’ (which is that approach I take in my book) then I think the problem starts to disappear.

    2014, Loane, T., ‘Using Technology to Gather, Store and Report Evidence of Learning

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