Effective systems of assessment in schools need to have learners at their centre. One of the biggest barriers faced by schools in their efforts to meet the needs of learners is the link between systems of assessment and accountability. The high stakes testing and assessment regimes currently in place leave primary educators engaged in an exhausting juggling act whereby they have to work creatively against the systems in place if they want to hold the needs of individual children at the centre of their practice.
Good practice, as a teacher, involves spending time and energy planning opportunities for children to experience the buzz of learning, developing their confidence and investment levels. It is important that systems of assessment enhance this process and do not interfere negatively with this important work. Current systems of standardised testing can put children in a situation where they are expected to grapple with learning that they are not developmentally ready for, and which lacks any relevance to their own experiences. Such assessment is an interruption rather than a support, which can have a negative impact on confidence levels.
What is important is formative assessment, which takes many different forms, and which teachers engage in every day. This ongoing process informs and enlightens, offering teachers useful information about individual learners, as well as information about their own practice, the provision on offer and any adjustments they need to make. ‘Reliable summative assessment grows out of formative assessment’ (Birth to Five Matters, p.40), offering an opportunity to step back and get a sense of where a child is in their learning, and where they need to go next.
If we want rigorous and useful systems of assessment, it is important that teachers and educators have a say in the development of the systems in place. They are experts: they know the reality of classroom life, they live the challenges and understand what is needed and what is workable. For me, the reality of the reintroduction of the Government's Baseline Assessment, at the start of this academic year, was that it not only interrupted the settling-in process for the children in my class but at the end of it I was also left much less well informed about the children than I would have been had I been able to carry out my own baseline assessments.
During these Baseline assessments, I reflected that one of the systems flaws was that the children were aware that they were being assessed. My colleague and I plan many assessments in our Reception classrooms but one key difference is that when we plan for assessment the children do not know that they are being assessed. Instead, they are engaging in play, or an activity or a game whilst we simultaneously make observations. We know the children we are assessing and can therefore design assessments that they can access so that they can succeed and are not left feeling bewildered and confused.
If we want all children to be able to develop as learners and to meet their potential then systems of assessment need to be inclusive and varied; they need to be flexible and teacher-led; they need to allow space for creativity and interpretation. They also need to be translatable and meaningful for parents and carers who are partners in their children’s learning journeys, and they must hold each individual child at their centre and support and enhance their experiences.