• Teacher Breakdown

A breakdown of...assessments

"I use the 9-1 grading system for Year 7 and I give them GCSE questions to stretch them" - Mate...are you crazy?


These were the days... (Or so I am told. I grew up listening to Aqua and wearing tracksuit bottoms with poppers up the side)

One of the biggest challenges I faced when I was put in charge of my own department (other than having to throw twenty years of outdated resources into a skip) was the issue of assessment. If you're a GCSE or A Level teacher, you're laughing at this stage, because your assessments are all dictated by the exam board or by the annual mock week. However, when it comes to Key Stage Three, there is a huge grey area the size of the Pacific.


Timing, difficulty, grading, format? These are all factors that teachers must consider in the creation of the perfect assessment. As a new teacher, you may not have much involvement in the dreaded 'end of term' or 'end of year' exams, but it is important that you have an understanding of what to do, and more importantly, what not to do, when it comes to it.


First of all, you will hear a couple of phrases thrown around when it comes to assessment - summative and formative - so it is important to define these from the outset:


If the purpose is to help in decisions about how to advance learning and the judgement is about the next steps in learning and how to take them, then the assessment is formative in function. If the purpose is to summarise the learning that has taken place in order to grade, certificate or record progress, then the assessment is summative in function (IOE).

For the purpose of this blog post, I will focus on summative assessment. After all, I am sure, like me, that you are currently in the midst of exam setting, invigilation and marking, so this choice seems fitting. I imagine that in the future, formative assessment will be covered, so just watch this space.


One of the biggest difficulties in creating a summative assessment is its structure. The general rule of 'a mark a minute' seems to work for most subjects, but from there it seems to be a bit of a free-for-all. So here are three simple tips on assessment design at KS3 (particularly focused on Arts subjects...sorry...)


1) Creating the test

Lets face it. Often we are told to set an assessment for the sheer sake of it. Whether it is because we have been told to set one every half term, or we mindlessly assume we need one before we progress on to a new topic. But what if we took a step back and figured out what the purpose of the assessment was? Is it designed to test skills or knowledge? Is it a test of the topic as a whole, or just the most difficult parts of it? Knowing this will help you to decide how the assessment should be designed.


2) Completing the test

Every so often I will have a clear-out of my files and folders and I will come across one of the first History assessments that I created. While it might be common practice to be overcome with a sense of pride or joy at the sight of an old photograph or memory, these feelings are far from reality in this case of old resources you created. As an enthusiastic, fresh-faced HoD, I would cram as much into one exam paper as I possibly could. Knowledge questions, source questions, depth questions, breadth questions - this bad boy had it all (I am talking about the exam paper here, rather than myself). Nowadays, however, I have stripped my exam papers back to their bare bones. This is partly to reduce the time spent marking (using my newfound Maxine Waters, 'Reclaiming my time', mindset) but also to avoid over testing. Remember, there are numerous warnings against exhaustive exams for young people and assessments should be an opportunity for them to succeed, rather than fail.


A recent paper published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry (2018) advised that all summative assessments be created by the individual subject teacher in an attempt to ease pupil anxiety regarding testing and it is definitely a movement that is gaining traction:


“The financial, pedagogical and emotional costs of high-stakes testing are substantial, especially compared to its modest benefits. For these reasons, we view our results as support for the standardisation and wider use of teacher assessments and the reduction of testing during compulsory education.

In recent years, I have reduced my end-of-year assessments to just two sections: one-mark knowledge questions (on dates, names, events, etc.) and three, 'long-response questions' focusing on PEEL paragraphs. These tests enable pupils to achieve higher marks than they would have previously achieved and can be graded in a relatively short amount of time; an example is shown below:


Reducing the number of components in an exam reduces the pressure placed on pupils (and on you!)

3) Handing back the test

So you managed to get through the exam season without any tears (and I'm not even talking about the pupils...) - the only thing left to is to hand the papers back to the pupils. One of the difficulties is how to communicate this. Many teachers have recently switched to the 9-1 GCSE system for all year groups in an attempt to 'prepare them', but frankly, this is utterly ridiculous. The easiest thing to do is to avoid using grades altogether. Just provide a mark and a percentage, which can then be compared against other tests across the year (if desired) or against other subjects. Also, never give out class averages - remember that performance and progress are all relative!


The final thing to do is to go through the paper in detail and offer feedback. This is incredibly important and should probably take at least half a lesson. Pupils should be absolutely destroying their exam papers with a coloured pen and could even redo questions for homework. When it comes to essay tasks, rather than formal assessments, I also like to provide a marking grid so that pupils can clearly see where they lost marks. This grid also offers space for self-reflection and target setting, which helps develop metacognition; a completed example is below:


An example of a completed essay feedback grid - here, a grade has been awarded as this was not an exam-style assessment

So ahead of the next round of exams, perhaps you could consider some of these strategies when it comes to assessment creation. Implementing it as a pilot study and gaining feedback from pupils and staff (as well as the raw data from the assessment itself) could also provide a good insight into its validity. Anyway, I need to end this post before I get any more technical; I just said the word 'validity' for goodness sake...