GCSE Secondary Secondary English

Secondary English – The value of formative assessment

Over the past few years, the pressure on teachers and schools to provide accurate assessment of pupil progress has been racked up to a point which, some say, is almost unsustainable. With the advent of the SSEF, schools had to provide paper evidence trails to demonstrate their knowledge of the working practices and efficacy of every aspect of school life: including learning walks, work scrutiny, student voice activities – all this on top of Performance Management and other lesson observations.

Is it any wonder then, that some teachers have begun to view marking as just another means of demonstrating that they are doing their job? At some training that I was involved with recently, I asked the staff to answer honestly who the prime audience was for their marking. Was it the students, really? Or was it to satisfy the person with the tick-box who was going to be assessing their competence.

I’m sure you know what the answer was.

Dylan Wiliam is passionate about the value of formative assessment as a means of securing student progress. He talks with enormous common sense about how marking is one means of giving students what they need, which is honest, valid feedback on where they are and what they need to do to improve. Metacognition is fundamental to this process – involving students in the language of their learning and sharing the process with them.

At one school, this has been adopted by all staff with quite remarkable results. Marking has been limited to twice every half term at Key Stage 3 (at Key Stages 4 and 5 more often might be more appropriate). All marking is linked explicitly to the Assessment Focus, and teachers use the acronym P A T (Praise, Attainment/Achievement, Target).

The T for Target has been interpreted by this school to mean: ‘now, you go and do’. The Head of English said he was becoming increasingly frustrated by the fact that he and his team spent hours giving students loads and loads of written feedback on their work, only for the students to just look at their attainment grade, compare it with whomever they felt in competition with, and then close their books. Dylan Wiliam would agree with this wholeheartedly – he has often advocated not giving students grades / levels as part of their feedback at all when in the process of developing a skill. This particular English department have decided to use ‘target’ to mean giving students a task to do to respond to the marking; a paragraph highlighted by the teacher for them to complete again, for example.

This department has recently received an ‘outstanding’ judgement from Ofsted: the level of student autonomy was sited as one of the main reasons for the judgement. Perhaps more significantly, teacher workload is reduced, student performance has made ‘significant improvement’, and parents value and support homework as they can see that it is for a specific purpose, rather than the ‘tick-box’ function it tended to serve in the past.

Sarah Darragh
English Teacher and author of A Bridge to GCSE English

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