Book title: Making Good Progress? The future of Assessment for Learning
Author: Daisy Christodoulou
Publication date: 2016
1. What is your overall impression of the book?
Daisy Christodoulou’s previous experience as a secondary English teacher and current position as the Head of Assessment for the ARK academy chain has enabled her to outline succinctly the many assessment problems that primary and secondary schools in England face.
In the first half of the book she explains why descriptor-based assessment, such as using levels, stored up problems for the English system in the previous quarter of a century – and how exam-based assessment has had other distorting effects.
Her intention is to help practitioners, school leaders and policy-makers learn from the negative consequences that she describes and form a fully integrated, accurate and useful assessment system. As England’s primary and secondary schools, and their teachers, struggle with the post-Gove uncertainty in formative assessment – and the similarly opaque, unstandardised summative testing systems – this is an admirable ambition.
The difficulty the book has is that it does not take into account the huge teacher professional knowledge about how to use assessment in primary schools that was developed after the arrival of level descriptors in 1995.
What may look like the answer for specialist secondary teachers has rarely shown the way for strengthened primary school practice. The book’s conclusions are based on the assumption that the whole English education system has accepted that our children need a knowledge-based curriculum.That discussion is still ongoing in the primary context. Our research shows that the learning dispositions and attitudes we teach are entwined with the knowledge foundations our curricula deliver. Our teaching methods and pedagogy are also inseparable from the knowledge and skills our children need to master.
It will be for secondary colleagues to comment on whether the author’s proposed direction of travel more clearly offers the answer for assessment for learning in their phase and subject area.
2. Who do you think would benefit most from reading the book? What will they learn?
I agree with Dylan Wiliam, who provides the foreword, that Christodoulou succinctly argues that summative and formative assessment have to co-exist – though I am less persuaded by the author’s idea that they can be kept apart. The demands of teaching across subject areas in primary schools makes the development of a formative assessment system which does not inform summative assessment tracking, a huge workload issue.
That said, all who are working in schools to make coherence out of the burdensome changes in 2014 will benefit from reading this book.
They will learn that descriptor-based systems have a tendency towards generic, rather than specific feedback and are inclined to focus on short-term performance rather than long-term learning. The continuing issues with using the ‘secure fit’ model of writing assessment in 2016 and 2017 in England’s schools shows that any attempts to be highly specific about descriptors does little to strengthen their reliability.
Christodoulou also explores the limits of summative tests that lead to an overall grade in enabling us to formatively assess children and describe what they need to learn next. She reminds us that tests and exams are samples of a domain of knowledge, not a direct measurement of the totality of that knowledge, which distorts what we can conclude from them.
Chapter 5 looks at how primary and secondary teachers have used gaps in a child’s performance on tests to plan future learning. Her use of the available research base raises important questions around whether exams, which test such a small proportion of knowledge, are too weak to inform formative assessment. It also appears to reveal this as an area without a particularly strong research base, despite the dominance of testing in the English and US systems (even though this is where the limited research she uses comes from).
3. What did you think about the quality of the writing? Please consider the tone, structure and ideas. Does it suit the audience?
The author has written a book that I will come back to. It is written in an accessible and inviting way that teachers and school leaders in all phases and at all stages in their career can access. Its coherent structure allows the reader to navigate the key issues in the current assessment debate and a focus on any key chapter would inform any staffroom conversation or meeting.
4. Please discuss the research used to underpin the ideas. What evidence do the authors use? Is it robust and up-to-date?
The research base presented is contemporary, authoritative and is clearly referenced with links to journals and web-based sources. Understandably, given the author’s career, its foundations are in secondary practice and research and in my view its current inability to signpost the future of assessment for learning in primary schools flows from that.
5. What did you learn from reading the book? What ideas/approaches/practice will you change or adopt as a result of reading this book?
Since my first reading of the book I have returned to it over the last 6 months as I look at how I can lead my school on the same quest the author has: to formatively assess children to enable responsive teaching, alongside the need to have accurate summative assessment that enables us to ensure all our children are progressing.
Christodoulou’s principle that we need to ‘break complex skills down into small tasks that do not overload pupils’ limited working memory’ is a solid foundation for teacher planning in any phase, and I will continue to go back to this key part of the book to see where its thinking could take my school.
I am unconvinced that the ‘models of progression’ the author believes in will lead us out of the current problem, however. Nor do I think they are easily used the primary classroom, where much of our teaching is competency based, inquiry-led and less amenable to breaking down into deliberate practice. For example, the section about ‘models of progression’ focuses on paper and digital textbooks as the vehicles for curriculum structure. I am unaware of a research base to support that direction of travel in primary schools where experiential and social learning is key.
6. Could you share a quote from the book that particularly resonated with you?
“These debates about educational methods are absolutely crucial to debates around formative assessment, because formative assessment is all about methods, whereas summative assessment is about aims.”