researchED: Science Classroom Assessment

I’m excited to be talking at researchED Maths and Science, along with many other speakers. I decided to use this opportunity to reflect on the research-informed approach we have implemented for the Activate project.

At the start of the Activate project, I sat down with a proposal for a scheme of work (much of the content had been written), the new National Curriculum for Science (I didn’t like it) and my own thoughts on what a classroom assessment framework should look like (from my own research and that of many others).

I teach and supervise teachers who are doing a Masters degree in Education at the University of Sussex. When reading published research and when doing your own, most educational research comes down to the interplay of theory, policy and practice. In taking on the Activate project, I feel the wrangle of these three concepts at all times.

The Theory

Let’s take the theory; that is all the educational research to date on assessment and particularly assessment in science education. Since the 1998 publication of ‘Inside the Black Box’ by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, Assessment for Learning as a concept has become part of education across the world. The key message from this work was that teachers spend too much time of summative assessment and not enough on formative assessment, where learning actually happens. Specifically, giving learners grades is detrimental, meaningful comments only help learners progress. Then John Hattie’s meta-analysis showed beyond doubt that effective feedback and time to respond was the most effective method for increasing attainment at school. And more recently, studies are showing the nuances of self- and peer-assessment as having unique and crucial impact on learners’ learning. And finally, from my own doctorate, into how teachers used Level Assessed Tasks with Level Ladders, came down to, it’s not what you do but it’s the way that you do it. The task is only as good as the teacher who is using it.

Taking this research, in an ideal world, we should be able to design a scheme of work with no grades, lots of formative opportunities, with an emphasis on good quality feedback and with the opportunities for self- and peer-assessment. Underpinning this should be occasional good quality tests (which inform teaching and learning as well as attainment at key points) and teacher support, so that teachers can use the resources as effectively as possible. In fact, these are the underlying principles of Activate’s Assessment Framework.

The Policy

However, we have the added complication of policy. This is governmental policy, as well as local and school based policies. Government policy on assessment is pretty straight forward, it’s very much, ‘do what you like as long as you get good GCSE grades, based on our new numbers-instead-of-letters system’. Having taken away the Key Stage 3 levels of attainment, schools all clamoured to come up with their own way of ‘measuring’ and ‘communicating’ assessment. Several different data management packages came on the market, some schools developed their own rubrics like ‘developing, secure or extending’, some went for ‘mastery’ in some or all subjects and more recently some are just plumping for the 1-9 grades that are used in the new GCSEs. This leaves a fragmented approach to assessment and progress at Key Stage 3, a particular challenge for the development of a useful Scheme of Work. In addition, due to other policy decisions, there is increasing dissatisfaction in the teaching profession, where we are losing more teachers than we are gaining, there is a national shortage of science teachers which means non-specialists are teaching science, and economic cuts means that schools are squeezed on staffing and resource purchases.

The Practice

So, this brings me to what is happening in practice. Based on the research evidence, we ensured that we identified the assessment opportunities for each activity; teacher-, peer- or self-assessment. In addition to encourage the use of formative assessment and feedback opportunities, we ensured that there were a range of online self-tests with instant feedback followed by a ‘Check-Point Lesson’ during which teachers use information from the online tests to set improvement activities, helping learners to fill gaps and broaden their knowledge and understanding.

We also created progression pathways for content (Biology, Chemistry and Physics), working scientifically, literacy and maths, based on some evidence, inputs from experts and the practical constraints of the content of the National Curriculum. These have proved useful to teachers and are a basis of monitoring progression.

The most noticeable tension has been the demand of tests in every variety. I wanted to have three tests per year: two interim and one final year. However, the market research from OUP showed that teachers wanted more types of test. We ended up with topic tests, end of unit tests, baseline tests and end of year tests all available as science, biology, chemistry or physics. This pressure was created by schools demanding regular ‘grades’ of some type for each learner ranging from weekly to termly.

Our own check points

Now in our third year, we are generating our own knowledge from research by carrying out impact studies to find out what teachers use, how they use it and identify improvements. We get ad hoc feedback from users which we respond to and catalogue, but this is a more systematic approach. I will present some of the findings in my talk.

To encourage more focussed approach to feedback, we are developing a series of PinchPoints as a progression pathway. Instead of focussing on tiny stepping-stones, we are looking at blocks of knowledge and supporting teachers in unpicking learners misunderstandings and providing a range of interventions.

We are also developing smarter tests that will generate class level and individual level feedback to encourage the formative use of summative tests.

What this hopefully shows teachers who use our schemes of work is that they are no longer just a static textbook and worksheets, they have become an evolving, organic product that responds to the needs of the users as and when change happens.

All the best,

Andy Chandler-Grevatt

Andy photo

Dr Andrew Chandler-Grevatt has a PhD in school assessment and a passion for science teaching and learning. Having worked as a science teacher for ten years, of which five were as an AST, Andy has a real understanding of the pressures and joys of teaching. Alongside his research in school assessment, Andy is a teaching fellow on the PGCE course at the University of Sussex, and is a successful published assessment author. He is the Assessment Editor for Activate, AQA GCSE Sciences Third Edition and OCR Gateway GCSE Science.