You are using an outdated browser. Please upgrade your browser to improve your experience and security.

4 November 2020
By Zoe Enser

Assessment in English for Secondary Schools

Assessment is one of the most important thing we do in English. Afterall, there is little point in us teaching anything if students are unable to actually retain anything of our teaching. In fact, that is one of the biggest frustrations we encounter; we have taught it, but they don’t know it! We can sometimes feel that we are just shouting into a void. To ensure that students then are really learning in our classrooms, effective assessment is important. I have written about formative assessment previously, but in preparation for our next English Network meeting I want to turn my attention to summative assessment and how we can aim to get the most out of it.

  • Linked to that is whether we are assessing the whole of what has been studied or a selection of what has been covered. For example, if we were to ask a question about power relationships at the start of Lord of the Flies, students might write effectively about the relationship between Ralph and Jack but may not mention Piggy or Simon. It may also not explore elements of the setting which could be important or the relationship of the wider context. That isn’t wrong, but it is something to be aware of as if we are only ever assessing a small element of the curriculum, we won’t be getting a clear picture of what our students know and can do. We need to then think about how we might check for other things without just having a whole other assessment to do.

When we do have quite narrow assessments, we also should be careful not direct our teaching toward a particular question and narrow the curriculum. Even if we want to assess just a section, we want to make sure students have had the breadth of teaching to really understand the issues.

It is important to always start with some questions to explore the validity and reliability of the assessment.

What are we Assessing and what is the Purpose?

Any good assessment should be clear on what it is trying to discover and how it links to the curriculum. A good assessment will probe understanding and require students to draw on a range on knowledge from across the subject. A good assessment will also throw up some surprises for us to then consider in relation to our teaching or our students’ learning. If it just confirms what we already know then there is a question to be raised about purpose here.

Do we Assess Everything that has been Studied or a Selection?

Linked to that is whether we are assessing the whole of what has been studied or a selection of what has been covered. For example, if we were to ask a question about power relationships at the start of Lord of the Flies, students might write effectively about the relationship between Ralph and Jack but may not mention Piggy or Simon. It may also not explore elements of the setting which could be important or the relationship of the wider context. That isn’t wrong, but it is something to be aware of as if we are only ever assessing a small element of the curriculum, we won’t be getting a clear picture of what our students know and can do. We need to then think about how we might check for other things without just having a whole other assessment to do.

When we do have quite narrow assessments, we also should be careful not direct our teaching toward a particular question and narrow the curriculum. Even if we want to assess just a section, we want to make sure students have had the breadth of teaching to really understand the issues.

Are there Limitations to Assessment?

What are the limitations of the assessment or what won’t it tell us? Again, this links to the above. If we know we are only assessing a portion of what has been taught, we need to be aware of that and consider if we will know if it has been embedded.

It is also worth considering if we are assessing information which has had the chance to embedded or will require student to synthesise information. Good quality summative assessment will check this and allow for forgetting to have begun so we can be sure it has really been leant in a deep way. A heavily scaffolded assessment taking place immediately after teaching may well provide a confidence boost or an opportunity to practise, but is it really assessing whether things have been learnt? If it is a longer written assessment it is also worth considering is it telling us that students have weaknesses in literacy as opposed to weaknesses in knowledge and understanding if they have struggled with it. Sometimes shorter multiple-choice questions or shorter paragraphs will tell us more about the learning than essay-based questions.

How to Standardise and Moderate Assessment

Finally, if this assessment is important and will be used to track progress, we need to consider how will we standardise and moderate the work. That doesn’t mean we need to try to replicate a GCSE criteria or use these kind of assessments throughout the school. It can be really powerful for a team to sit down and explore the questions above as part of this processes, beginning with what it is from the curriculum you want to assess. It can even be useful for a team to write some models together to think about what some of the best answers might contain and reflect on how this will be assessed. Comparative judgement can be a powerful way to moderate too, with teachers regularly rank ordering assessments within their own classes and bringing those ideas to the moderation table for further discussion and comparison. It will also help to highlight strengths and developments for teaching of the units so fits well into the evaluation and reflection process too.

What Next?

Most importantly perhaps is the question of what next? Unless this is a final exam for GCSE then it is likely that we are going to want to do something with the information we discover. In fact, even with final exams we can still use information to inform our later practice. Even if the assessment is summative and we are moving on to something completely new there will always be something we want to feed into the next teaching sequence in your curriculum. Exploring assessments in depth can really help you to reflect on your curriculum and where you want students to go and what they must take with them.

The next English Network meeting will give you the opportunity to reflect on some of the ideas which underpin assessment in English and to explore your own practice. This takes place on Tuesday 10 November between 3.30pm and 4.30pm.

Book your place at the next English Network Meeting

(Remember these Network sessions are free to all maintained schools in the Kent area)

If you would like to discuss assessment with me further or explore how I can support your English teams, please do contact me at zoe.enser@theeducationpeople.org