I think I speak for most maths teachers when I say that teacher assessment is at the core of what we do – and have always done.

Thanks to the nature of GCSE mathematics, our grade estimations are often spot on. Students can generally climb through our curriculum while learning mathematical skills and mastering them, before then applying these skills in context and hopefully, reaching the pinnacle of using them to solve problems.

The task of teacher assessment is now at the forefront of all our minds, dominating conversations in school among peers and students alike. How do we thoroughly, fairly, and in a non-discriminatory and accurate manner, gather evidence for such skills, when those skills aren’t explicitly attached to grade boundaries?

Should we refer to past exam papers that have grade boundaries attached to them? If this were the solution, then surely we’d be sitting an actual exam – and so we find ourselves back at square one.

Mock exams, practice questions and exam success

The students in front of us have not only potentially missed out on learning content, but have also lost the rigour of testing. The skills of revision and retrieval haven’t been embedded into their current practise.

What we’d usually expect of a grade 7 student can’t possibly equate to what a grade 7 student can produce this year, which is foremost in our thoughts as we frantically gather our evidence.

As a fairly small department of seven maths specialists, we began this task with discussions regarding what methods would best assess the skills of our students. We took into account the content we hadn’t covered and the evidence we’d previously collected from formal mock assessments, and dissected the guidelines and directives given to us by the exam board.

We had yet to finish teaching the course to many of our students, and unanimously felt that using past papers wouldn’t be a fair measure to assess with – despite this feeling like the more secure method for us as teachers, and definitely more in line with our definition of ‘normal’.

Like many schools, we hit the task head-on and have written our own assessments using past exam questions, breaking the curriculum down into distinct, manageable sections for our students to focus on.

The assessments contain a breadth of questions from covered content, which falls into varying levels of difficulty as outlined by official grade descriptors for the course (in line with what we’d usually expect to see on a published exam paper).

Practically, this has meant we’ve been able to focus our students’ revision by using topic-specific published resources.

Online resources, such as GCSEPod and Hegarty Maths, have been at the core of this process, as students can be directed towards specific Pods and videos to watch, before practising the attached questions.

The new exam-style papers available from the GCSEPod site are a superb addition and a great time saver, able to provide targeted assessment in maths, as well as other subjects.

Online resources are currently written into our scheme of learning mainly as homework tasks, though these have seen much more prominent use over the past year with the shift to online learning.

Where we might have traditionally deployed textbooks or worksheets, much of our independent work is now focused around online resources – especially those that are student centred, and which allow students to personalise their own revision process, rather than focus on set tasks assigned by teachers (though the latter do have their place).

Assigning grades without a maths exam

The current value of online resources is, in my opinion, priceless, since not all students can be physically present in our classrooms. By giving our students structure, focus and resource options, we can help them take control of their studies, while trying to keep them calm and reducing their anxiety levels.

Moreover, there have been times when we’ve needed to do all this whilst simultaneously managing students who are isolating, dialling in online, and attempting to teach to rooms filled with covered faces. Our initial return to school was accompanied by numerous challenges definitely not conducive to effective teaching.

The main difficulty we continue to have is that we’re currently assigning grades where no official grade boundaries exist. This is where we draw on the experience of our team, many of whom are examiners. We’re thankful for having continually assessed our students for years – we baseline our students annually, and use data comparatively to predict future performance.

Like many, we teach the GCSE course in distinct units, revising each chunk of work and testing understanding at the end of every section. We track the performance of cohorts termly using past exam papers, so that we can compare progress year on year.

We therefore feel rather fluent with teacher assessment, since we report on predicted grades constantly throughout the course, using our data as a basis for intervention where needed.

Now, however, we’re faced with a further challenge – what about those students we don’t know very well? Those who have just joined the cohort, or those struggling to give us the evidence we need, despite a history of a certain performance level, often through no fault of their own?

We’re trying to give these students as many chances as possible to show us the mathematics that they’re capable of, and are actively trying to encourage all students by selling this ‘situation’ as an opportunity to really take their learning into their own hands.

A fair mathematics qualification system?

Inevitably, there will be some students who don’t provide the evidence we think they may have been capable of – just as there are students every year who don’t reach their target grades from an exam series.

This year, however, we’ll be the ones who have to write down that grade. We’re finding that not all students will fit into the initial plans for our assessment process.

As time continues to tick by, many other schools will be amending their resources and assessments to give them ‘what they need’, because it seems that for the most part, we’re confident in knowing what grades our students can achieve.

The difficulty comes in assigning evidence to these grades, in line with the opinions of all other teachers in the country, whilst at the same time, somehow hoping that the system remains fair.

I have no doubt that the integrity and professionalism of teachers will enable us to meet this challenge.

The coming months will inevitably produce much fuel for discussions around performance data and furious moderation of student work, with the mental health and wellbeing of students (and our colleagues) remaining our absolute focus.

I do, however, wonder how many schools will revert to using past exam papers with published grade boundaries as part of their evidence – those being an easy crutch to lean on, and likely to be comparative to their own assessment grades.

Sarah Trevena is a maths teacher at Kings Priory School, Tynemouth.