This article first appeared in the BETT 2013 Learning Leaders magazine. It is one of the articles in our National Teacher Enquiry Network December end of term newsletter (sign up here).

When classroom teachers feel that they ‘own’ the assessment data about their pupils it can be the starting point of some of the most effective professional development and school improvement.

However, if teachers in your school feel they’re only producing assessment data in order to satisfy ‘the system’, rather than reflect meaningful learning and progress, then you can easily end up with several problems:

  • Teachers put less effort into constructing meaningful assessments and, instead, time is spent simply producing something numeric in order to reduce the inconvenience and time ‘wasted’ for their pupils.
  • Teachers won’t have any faith in interpretations of the data as they won’t feel it accurately represents genuine learning.
  • Teachers will feel aggrieved when performance management judgements are made using this information, and will resent any professional development that they are put through as a result.

It is very easy for a leadership team to try and force the process of assessment end up losing the trust of staff and compromising the quality of data collected. There are a number of things you can do about this (or avoid it in the first place):

  1. Don’t collect school-wide data too often in the year, certainly at first. Standard deadlines for collecting data will inevitably jar with some existing working practices and may not make any sense for some departments’ schemes of work. Phase in standardised data collection points over a couple of years and give departments plenty of notice to tweak their teaching order.
  2. Don’t collect only numeric data. One number or grade can never do proper justice to a pupil’s learning. Allow staff to make notes on individual scores/grades and provide some overall commentary on the pattern in their classes, if they wish. This ensures that sensible and relevant messages are shared with colleagues and line-managers, and gives teachers a chance to express their professional opinions.
  3. Ask teachers to comment specifically on which pupils have been learning less effectively, and ask them why. Ask teachers to diagnose what extra support these pupils may need in order to catch up and/or make better progress.
  4. Make sure that the first interpretation of any assessments are carried out within departments and then fed upward to leadership along with written commentary and plans to tackle issues. Encourage teachers to work in collaborative teams and use written work, assessments, and lesson observations to diagnose which pupils are learning less effectively than others, and come up with ideas for tackling the underperformance. This should be a starting point for professional development, with smaller teams working on collaboratively planning lessons or small-group interventions that can deal with the problems.
  5. Leadership teams should focus on the ability of teachers and departments to analyse their own data (both quantitative and qualitative), accurately diagnose learning strengths and weaknesses, collaboratively plan interventions to deal with these, and rigorously evaluate and adapt their approaches. In order to build trust, pair up departments and ask them to review each other in this way before subjecting themselves to leadership scrutiny, and ensure that members of the leadership team who are also departmental teachers are the first to volunteer their classes and assessment data to be examined by others.

When teachers really trust their assessment data and feel their judgements are respected then you have a better chance of engaging them as active participants in improving the quality of teaching in their departments, and ultimately the quality of learning across the whole school.

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