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I feel the need to tread carefully when writing about the divisive subject of primary writing assessment. There is a consensus that our current system is far from perfect, but a distinct lack of agreement over what we should be doing instead.
While some develop innovative comparative systems that make effective use of technology, others point out the flaw in seeking to have any system at all for assessing the ‘quality of writing’ (an innately subjective discipline).
There is however, something we can perhaps all agree on when judging the quality of a piece of writing: the need for multiple opinions. We need collaboration.
Whatever the system looks like, we’re more likely to reach accurate judgements when we work together. Fortunately, this is not news to the profession. Across the country, writing moderation meetings (or ‘joint assessment’ meetings) are commonplace.
Assessing writing alongside teachers from different schools provides invaluable insight and helps develop at least some commonality and consistency at a local level. By working together, we ensure our assessment is less likely to fall victim to unconscious bias.
We must reflect, though, on an important question: do we give adequate time to this important collaborative work? If not, what can we do about it?
A typical meeting between schools involves teachers sharing work from a handful of pupils. A colleague from a different setting will spend time reading the work and will then offer some comments about the child’s strengths and suggest areas for development.
A short conversation will then ensue about where the pupil is currently working, in relation to the expectations set out in the teacher assessment frameworks.
These meetings often last for around two hours and take place two or three times a year.
In a typical meet-up, each school’s books may be looked at for around half an hour. Compared to the amount of time a teacher will spend individually assessing writing, this is not very long. The balance lies heavily in favour of individual assessment. Is this balance (or imbalance) acceptable?
If we are serious about improving writing assessment (using our current system), we need to address this. We need more time to engage in deep and meaningful joint assessment sessions. We need to spend more time assessing together, rather than by ourselves.
Which of the following best describes your use of collaboration when arriving at judgements? Use this self-assessment tool to support you in reaching a judgement and identifying a way forwards:
You recognises the need to validate your judgements with a second or third opinion. However, you largely see it as a tick-boxing exercise. Your local cluster hosts an annual moderation meeting which you attend, taking along a carefully selected set of books. The meeting finishes early (as all good meetings do) and you return to school, happy that nobody attempted to challenge your judgements.
You value joint assessment with local colleagues and your school finds the time to send you to a termly meeting. You grab a handful of books at random and photocopy some of your most recent examples of writing, ensuring that any grading is removed. You also select an example of cross-curricular writing. The meeting is purposeful and last for two hours. You return feeling more confident about your summative judgements but, more importantly, with a clear idea of what each child needs to do to improve.
Your school places joint assessment at the centre of its writing assessment model. Every term, you meet with the same group of local teachers for a deep and meaningful assessment session that lasts for a full day. You take along examples of work for every child in your class and compare children of similar ability levels from different schools. The priority is formative assessment – you agree strengths and areas for development for each child then use teacher assessment frameworks to identify current grades. You feel confident in your judgements, knowing they are consistent with colleagues in other local schools.
John Coxhead is deputy head of a primary school in Lancashire and leads Shining Lights Teaching School Alliance. He is also a member of the DfE’s Teacher Reference Group. Follow him on Twitter at @johncoxhead89.
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