Home > Assessment, Curriculum, Education Policy, Maths, Teaching > What are we testing for?

What are we testing for?

There are many types of assessment that take place within our schools. Formative, Summative, AfL etc are all buzzwords that relate to some kind of assessment that occurs on a daily basis,  each with a different perceived purpose. So what is the big picture? What are we testing for? Should we be doing it?

I was recently told by someone that they had received feedback from a lesson observation which marked them down for “lack of AfL”. I asked if they had been given anymore information than that and was told that the observer had said “You need to use lollysticks or whiteboards.” This left me a little underwhelmed. The person I was speaking to was an NQT, and I thought that feedback was fairly meaningless and certainly less than helpful.


We’re talking “Assessment for Learning”, not Aussie Rules. The basic premise, as set out by Wiliam et al in the black box series, is to assess in lessons as you go along, to check the class understand what you’re teaching them. In theory, I can see this is excellent practice, but in reality it has in many places become a box ticking exercise. I spoke to a senior teacher this year who described lesson observations as “a game you play”. This frustrated me, I’m a firm believer of trying to be the best teacher I can be every lesson, and I try not to do anything out if the ordinary in observations. (My year 11s did throw the following accusation at me once: “Sir, how comes you pronounced your T’s properly when [the head] was in the room?”- this apparent vocal change was entirely subconsciously!)

That aside, I do think there is place for AfL in lessons, I’m a big fan of whiteboards, they’re versatile, they allow you to check answers from a whole class to ensure they know how to do something. They don’t, however, do some magic and allow pupils to remember how to do things forever. Lollysticks, on the other hand, seem less useful for AfL. I’ve always been told they are “AfL”, but I don’t really see how. You still only get an answer from one person. They may be good for some things (whether they are or not is a debate for another time, but you can read Tom Bennett’s (@tombennett71) thoughts here), but I don’t see how they fit here.

If the feedback was, ” You need to ensure whole class engagement, try using a random name selection method such as lollysticks.” I could have understood it. If it was “You need to ensure the whole class are ready for the task, use whiteboards.” I could have understood it. but to say “You need AfL use lollysticks or whiteboards” just doesn’t help anyone. AfL is great, but use it correctly, ask yourself “why am I doing this?” if the answer is “to tick a box” then don’t bother! If it’s “because it will aid the pupils learning.” Then give it a hell yeah.

Formative/Summative Assessment

This whole dichotomy which is often discussed between formative and summative assessment seems silly. Yes, there’s a difference between checking progress in a lesson on a whiteboard and sitting a test, but surely the point of end of term tests is to see how much pupils have learned? If your class have done half a term on Algebra, and they all got the expanding brackets questions wrong then you need to go back over expanding brackets. Thus the assessment is still formative.

I think many of us are guilty of overtesting to gather evidence of progress. An inevitable consequence of the raft of policy around this area. This itself can lead to issues. A twenty minute end of topic test which takes place at the end of a lesson where pupils have covered the content may give positive results, but the retention may not be there and they may not be able to recreate those results the following week. We need to structure our schemes of work, our lessons and our testing to create sustained progress. To ensure learning that sticks. I’m not sure how we do this yet, but I think a mastery based curriculum may be a good start. I’ve read a lot on memory and learning from Joe Kirby (@joe_kirby) which I want to get deeper into. (IE this but he has other posts too)

I think in class tests are a vital part of what we do, but their primary purpose should be to inform future teaching and learning, with progress monitoring a by product. When progress monitoring becomes the primary gain, we’ve got our priorities confused.

High stakes external exams

These are the output of our education system, what we are always building towards. It seems strange to put teenagers through such tribulations at an age when hormones are flying etc, but I’m not sure what the answer is. We need to have some form of qualifications that distinguishes each of us. @Bigkid4 has some good suggestions here. If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them.

This post is part of the #blogsync initiative for June 2014, you can read the others here.

  1. placlair
    June 30, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    One of the big issues I struggle with, w/r/t formative vs. summative assessment, is that I view EVERYTHING (every review game, worksheet, activity, bit of practice) as a formative assessment. I don’t need MORE whiteboards or lolly-sticks (and I don’t use either: all the students have iPads, so getting feedback digitally is easy), but I need a better structure and flow to deal with what I’ve got.

    • June 30, 2014 at 10:52 pm

      IPads are the future whiteboards I think. We don’t have them yet! I think we all probably need better structure, I’m working to find one. I agree, it all should be viewed as formative.

  1. July 22, 2014 at 12:53 pm

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