I have considered the suitability of the above image and what I mean to say with it. What I think needs to be discussed and questioned more in our schools is the way in which accountability is encroaching on how assessment works (or doesn’t) in our schools. Now I am not for a minute suggesting that any teacher has a deliberate agenda to unfairly assess their students, but what I am suggesting is that external pressures of accountability can exert pressure upon many teachers to adapt their practice. This is important for teachers to consider, as whilst they respond to these pressures, we are also trying to design assessments with the purpose of informing the learning of our students. How often do we get to think about the true purpose of our assessments, the fundamental principle of the good assessment?
Accountability in schools is currently spiraling from control, with linear progress often being expected for all students and teachers questioned or judged when assessment results show students not on course to meet attainment targets. Much of the data for students rely upon predictions of attainment or estimations of which students are on track to meet targets. This has moved away from the use of assessment data to inform teachers about where interventions should be placed to have the greatest effect and to which teachers need to be put under further scrutiny / heavier handed performance management. Accountability and its stranglehold over data is now taking up so much time that it is becoming increasingly challenging for teachers to actually implement the necessary teaching interventions to act upon it.
Now I am not saying all accountability activities in school need to be negative. Teachers, just like learners need to be evaluating the success of their teaching and thinking about what CPD activities might improve the outcomes for their students. From the perspective of senior leadership, accountability is a way of measuring the impact of CPD and looking for where the next intervention might be needed. These positive uses of accountability do require a sense of trust and belief that all teachers can improve with the right feedback and training. The type of accountability which is unhelpful is that which looks to weed out ‘unsuccessful’ teachers and replace them or acts out of distrust. This type of accountability will not only lead to teachers feel anxious about the judgments made about them but it will make them act out of desperation to appear faultless. This anxiety can make teachers act in ways which they would not normally, using their professional autonomy.
One way in which teacher’s practice can be altered by accountability is in their deployment and interpretation of assessment. As discussed earlier, one of the fundamental pillars of good assessment is the thinking behind the purpose of the assessment taking place. Sometimes in our classrooms, we might deploy an assessment to meet a data input deadline or for reporting a grade, but we should ask how valuable is this information? I have known teachers have to rush teaching a particular topic or delay moving on to a topic because they know one of these data drops is fast approaching. This is where assessment for accountability interrupts or stops learning.
Accountability can interfere with the purpose of an assessment and attempt to measure the quality of teaching, or even attempt to measure the likelihood of reaching a GCSE target grade in two years time! If we aimed to design an assessment for these purposes, what questions might we ask? What level of bloom’s taxonomy would need to be reached satisfy an external marker that the teacher had performed adequately? These questions are obviously very difficult to design, but very often GCSE exam papers are used to do this very task every year.
I would recommend that where possible, student assessment and accountability are best kept separate. Classroom assessment is an excellent tool to judge where students are working and inform them of what needs to be done in the next stages of learning. It is a terrible measure of the overall effectiveness of a teacher or a school and using it for these purposes of accountability should be exposed to be a useless exercise where it exists. It also drives teachers to use external assessments to shape their curriculum andinfluences the design for all assessments aiming to improve learning. As Daisey Christodoulou explains in the conclusion in her book on assessment for learning (Christodoulou, 2016):
‘Indirect measures are easily distorted and corrupted, so we have to be careful in the way we use exams and the way we prepare for them’
Christodoulou, D. (2016) Making Good Progress? The future of Assessment for Learning. Oxford University Press, Oxford.