The professional context and challenge

Learn Academies Trust (Learn-AT) launched in September 2016 with seven primary schools. In the first year of operation, the trust embarked on a collaborative journey towards a shared approach to principled assessment practice.

Each school had been assessing differently, and no-one could agree which objectives all trust schools should use or how standards might be quality-assured. Assessment practice was not the driver for learning and achievement we felt it could be. Moreover, without reasonably accurate assessment data, the trust would struggle to evaluate outcomes, exercise its accountability or plan effectively for school improvement and professional learning.

If good teaching makes a difference to students’ learning and achievement (Hanushek et al., 1998), and one of the features of good teaching is expertise in the use of formative assessment (Wiliam, 2016), then establishing a coherent approach to assessment was a priority. Firstly, we needed to learn more about good assessment. Secondly, we needed to design an assessment framework that could support high-quality teaching and enable self-evaluation and improvement at school and trust level (Wiliam, 2016). Finally, we needed to be able to implement it sustainably.

Learn-AT assessment group

An assessment group comprising headteachers and senior and middle leaders was convened to explore this overarching question: What kind of assessment design might support effective learning and provide the information the trust requires, without one skewing the other?

Within this, we explored a set of subsidiary questions. These are shown in Table 1, alongside related research literature. Members of the group spent a year on this project. We read peer-reviewed articles together and engaged with respected assessment commentators and authors. From our ‘literature review’, we co-constructed a theory of action to inform the design of our assessment framework. Throughout, we worked with OTrack and Headship Support to design a tracking package that reflected our principles and practice. The framework is available on the Learn-AT website: www.learn-at.org.uk/sites/default/files/pdfs/policies/af2017.pdf.

Our framework is underpinned by an expectation that all students will experience ‘quality first teaching’ with embedded formative assessment (Wiliam, 2011). Half-termly student progress meetings conducted between teachers and leaders at all levels provide a cyclical, collaborative inquiry structure and sit at the heart of the framework’s design. In these meetings, teachers’ summative judgements are entered into a tracking system, using a simple code. This data is discussed and evidence is considered from students’ work, assessment tasks and tests. Decisions are made about future teaching, interventions, changes in practice and teachers’ professional learning needs. Teachers and leaders consider together the data accrued so far and the impact of teaching. Colleagues decide the actions to take to secure further progress.

We work on the assumption that expectations in the National Curriculum are high and a student who is securely and consistently learning what the teacher is teaching, is making good progress. Students who are falling behind are clearly indicated and will require intervention and support to catch up. The cycle of regular student progress meetings ensures that the impact of actions taken is regularly evaluated and that the judgements reflected in reports have been triangulated with a range of quantitative and qualitative data. Our tracking system also has a section for tracking and analysing scores from standardised tests, undertaken three times a year from Year 1 to Year 6. This provides additional moderation of teacher assessment judgements and underpins our evaluation of student progress in-year and from year to year. Reports can show teacher judgements and standardised scores side by side. Leaders can ‘drill down’ into the achievement of individual students and groups at school and trust level.

Effective networks in practice

To effect sustainable change in assessment practices, we found Rincón-Gallardo and Fullan’s (2016) ‘essential features of effective networks’ helpful:

  • Focusing on ambitious student learning outcomes linked to effective pedagogy
    The assessment framework maintains a focus on the use of formative assessment.
  • Developing strong relationships of trust and internal accountability
    By working in a research-informed way, we hope to inspire confidence in teachers that the assessment design is authentic and authoritative.
  • Connecting outwards to learn from others
    We engage with relevant research literature and recognised assessment researchers, authors and commentators.
  • Frequently interacting and leaning inwards
    Teachers and leaders participate in structured professional dialogue about assessment and pedagogy regularly throughout the year.
  • Using deliberate distributed leadership and skilled facilitation
    Teachers and leaders develop the skills needed to conduct regular, structured dialogue around pedagogy, achievement, assessment and moderation.
  • Forming new partnerships among teachers
    The Learn-AT assessment group facilitates trust-wide meetings between teachers and middle leaders to evaluate the framework and share effective implementation practice.
  • Continuously improving practice through cycles of collaborative inquiry
    The cycle of regular student progress meetings ensures that the impact of actions taken is regularly evaluated and that the judgements reflected in reports have been triangulated with a range of quantitative and qualitative data.
  • Securing adequate resources to sustain the work
    We secure commitments from headteachers to resource the implementation of the framework in practice – for example, to release teachers and leaders to conduct their pupil progress meetings every half term.

The first incarnation of the Learn-AT Assessment Framework was published in June 2017 and launched in two joint professional development meetings. The work of the group, the theory of action and the principles underpinning the assessment framework design were shared with teachers and school leaders from across the trust.

Our intention is to implement principled and effective assessment design while supporting teachers’ continuous professional learning about formative assessment. However, in the spirit of inquiry and research engagement, we take nothing for granted. We will continue to collect data and evaluate the impact of this project over time.

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