Golden needles in a haystack: Assessment CPD trove #4

School leaders and teachers are strapped for time. 

What is the best free, fast, flexible CPD out there on assessment?

What can we read that has the highest impact in the least time?

There are no silver bullets, but here are some golden needles I’ve found in the last 10 years I’ve spent looking through the online haystack of education writing. 

Probably a fool’s errand, but I’m going to try anyway.

It’s fourth in a foolhardy series of collections of treasure troves on staff culture, student culture, and curriculum.

Thirteen golden needles for a 1-hour assessment treasure trove 

1. Connecting curriculum and assessment by Stuart Kime (3-minute read)

Improving our use of assessment means deepening our understanding of the curriculum.


2. The four pillars of assessment by Evidence Based Education (7-minute read)

We can’t develop our assessment practice without a strong base of knowledge of the key research around assessment.


3. Bad ideas about assessment lead to workload problems (3-minute read) 

Assessment alternatives: questions & pupil work (3-minute reads) by Daisy Christodolou 

If we have a shallow understanding of an assessment system’s flaws, it’s harder to see the deeper reasons why it isn’t working.


4. The level illusion by James Pembroke (4-minute read) and the madness of flightpaths by David Didau (4-minute read)

Predicting students’ progress is a mug’s game. 

[Note: Why are level-based systems so bad? In short, they are illusions. In this research study, pupils given level 2 in reading assessments had reading ages ranging from 5 to 10 years.]


5.  Banning GCSE grades before Year 11 by Matthew Benyohai (6-minute read)

You cannot use a GCSE grade to describe the attainment of someone who hasn’t studied the whole course.


6. Poor attainment data often comes too late! by Becky Allen (6-minute read)

Seek leading not lagged indicators.


7. Giving our data a haircut by Matthew Evans (11-minute read)

To collect data requires a clear rationale, clear resulting action and beneficial impact that exceeds the cost of collection. 


8. Decoupling summative and formative assessment by Michael Fordham (4-minute read)

To know whether pupils have learnt what is on the curriculum, we need a mix of assessment tools: some for determining whether factual knowledge has been learned; some for spotting misconceptions; some for seeing whether knowledge is sufficiently well connected. 


9. Standardised assessment in reading (3-minute) 

Inferences drawn from standardised tests contain decades’ worth of standardisation, so they are more likely to be reliable; they also bring us shared meaning over time in the form of a reading age.


10. Summative writing assessment with comparative judgment and writing ages (3-minute reads) by Daisy Christodoulou

Marking writing reliably is hard and has high margins of error; comparative judgment reduces margin of error a lot and brings us clear shared meaning over time in the form of a writing age.


11. What to do after a mock? Sampling and inferences (4-minute read) by Adam Boxer

Question-level analysis is highly dodgy: don’t fixate on the test sample; revisit the domain knowledge.


12. Receiver-focused reporting (longer read, well worthwhile for SLT or to convince them) by Sarah Jones

Ask: what do we most want pupils and parents to think and do with the data on the report?


Voila! A free, 60-minute starter-pack to help get up to speed with some of the world’s best current thinking on assessment in schools.


17 more free articles for a further crash course on assessment

In 2013, I wrote a 10-part series on assessment that I’ll share below as a second round, an extra 60-minute crash course in assessment thinking for school leaders.

1. What can we learn from AfL? (3 mins) (a shorter, better read is Daisy on AfL)

2. How is assessment shackling schools? (3 mins)

3. How could assessment unshackle schools? Subject-specific progression. (3 mins)

4. Life after levels: where SLT fear to tread (3 mins) (c.f. Daisy on Life after levels, 5 years on)

5. Who’ll create a mastery assessment system? (3 mins) (Mark McCourt)

6. Marking is a hornet (2 mins)

7. Three Assessment Mistakes (3 mins)

8. Why MCQs (2 mins) (Daisy on MCQs, distractors, research)

9. How to design MCQs (2 mins)

10. Quizzing (3 mins)


Four core insights

Lastly, here are four main insights I’ve learned from 10 years of studying assessment research.

1. All assessments are just tiny samples of a much broader curriculum and much, much wider subject domain. 

2. All assessment scores are just proxies (stand-ins for what’s really been understood and remembered in pupils’ minds) and just one-off snapshots in a single moment in time.

3. Proxies, samples, exams, assessments and data have pitfalls and washback: we might overinterpret them, put too much weight on them, distort our teaching by drilling to the test, contort our curriculum to cram for a high-stakes exam, crowd out broader subject knowledge and underdevelop our pupils’ schema. 

4. All assessments have limitations, and knowing those limitations (such as almost-inevitably non-standardised conditions) helps prevent us falling into traps of illusory thinking. 


My hope in investing the time it took to create this collection was that this two-hours-worth of carefully curated, freely available articles becomes not just another reading list, but a starting point for curating a coherently sequenced assessment CPD curriculum. 

The dream is to consolidate our knowledge of the best assessment research and expertise available to teachers and school leaders, and to consider which research questions we’d most like to explore as a profession. 

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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