In last month’s post, assessment did not really feature in my list of 20 Things I’ve Realised in 20 Years of Teaching. This is not because I have learned next to nothing about testing, grading and supporting students, but rather because it has been a complex relationship and one that I felt deserved its own post.
Much like my views on lesson plans, the role of assessment in my teaching has changed greatly over the years and it is a topic I have written about several times before in my pre-MET blogging days. I have bemoaned how tests dominate the thoughts and motivations of students; I have criticised the lack of authenticity in many traditional test tasks; I have advocated a more student-centred focus to test preparation; and I have designed my own assessment programmes focusing on more formative methods to support learning.
However, I now find myself setting regular tests and assessed activities and advocating their use across my school’s ESL programme. These are very much summative tests designed to test what the students know in exam-style conditions. So, why have I finally succumbed to what so many education systems have pushed above all else?
Because of the data.
Each test I give and assessed activity I prepare generates scores, numbers, and percentages all of which I collate in a spreadsheet all gloriously colour-coded as it records each students score (my new found love for spreadsheets has surprised me even more than my love for assessment data).
In this post, I will outline why the data geek in me finds these statistics so useful, but first a little context. I work in an independent school assisting international students through our English as an Additional Language (EAL) programme. The tests and assessed activities I use are based on age and level appropriate exams, namely Cambridge First for Schools and IGCSE English as Second Language (both of which test teenagers of around a B2 level). Working in a large school, the data generated from short reading and listening tests, as well as spoken and written tasks marked to exam criteria is extremely useful for the following reasons:
1. I can track progress
This year, I made it an early priority to give all international students from Year 9‒11 an adapted Cambridge First for Schools test. As the new coordinator of the EAL department, this gave me an immediate snapshot of the language levels in the school and a baseline for the rest of the year. Throughout the first term, I gave a series of shorter assessed activities covering all four skills as well as grammar and vocabulary, all relevant to topics and target language covered in class. Another adapted test was given at the start of this term and more short tasks were given. Gathering all this information together, I am able to see how each student has progressed from September onwards and ensure they are on target to meet their language development goals.
2. I can identify issues
While most students display an upwards trend in their average scores, this is not always the case. Termly tests and regular in class assessed activities allow me to spot early on if any pupil has reached a plateau in their language development or is even going backwards. A succession of lower than expected scores will prompt me to contact a student’s form tutor and/or other subject teachers to see if there are any concerns about progress outside the EAL classroom. Being able to act early instead of waiting for the end of year test results means we can work together to get the students back on track. Likewise, if an international student is struggling in a subject like Geography or Science, I have data to refer to highlight if there is a potential language issue or not.
3. I can justify decisions
Students are often a poor judge of their own language ability (to be honest, we teachers are all too often fooled by the confident communicators who are actually procrastinating to avoid that task they know will be difficult for them) and, as a result, I often get pupils in my office requesting changes to their English language lessons. Some say they have improved their English and don’t need support lessons any more (cynical me wonders if they are keen for a few free lessons in their timetable). Others make requests such as being transferred from English Literature to the IGCSE ESL course (cynical me again wonders if they think the latter will be somehow less work). Parents and well-meaning tutors will often weigh in on these requests as well, so it is very useful to have these numbers to fall back on. A student who is not performing well in our regular assessed activities probably won’t benefit from chilling in the library, just as a student who demonstrated a high B2/C1 level of language will likely find that desired switch to ESL too easy.
4. I can give exam training
Come Year 11, all thoughts turn towards the GCSE exams. These are always a stressful period for students, and they need all the preparation they can get. Regular exposure to the task types they are likely to encounter, both through full practice tests and individual listening, reading, writing, and speaking activities, provides them with knowledge of the test and plenty of experience of exam conditions, making the final exam (slightly) less daunting.
5. I can provide support
But it is not only about exam training. The data generated from these tasks and tests means I can provide better support on an individual, class and school level. I don’t simply record a percentage for each test; I also keep a breakdown of scores for each task type so I can see if a single student or even an entire class is struggling with, say, sentence transformation exercises or writing an article. In this way, the summative data becomes formative in use as we develop the students’ weak areas and fine tune their strengths. On a wider level, this data also allows me to see where students across year groups are struggling. In my previous school, for example, the data collected highlighted that the transition from Year 8 to Year 9 was a challenge for some students. They went from performing at or above the expected level to below it and needed interventions to improve their language ahead of starting GCSE programmes. Having this data recorded across whole year groups and, eventually, across several years of learning is an invaluable resource for informing our EAL support programmes and making sure they benefit the students as much as possible.
What are your thoughts on the importance of tests and assessment data in informing our teaching? As ever, we welcome your comments both here and on social media.