The other night, a tweet from Mark Gilbranch sparked a huge discussion which stretched over two days. A link to his blog about assessing writing, both with and without levels, led many Twitter users to debate the pros and cons (mostly cons, to be fair) of the new assessment system being devised across primary and secondary schools. There were many valid points raised, some of which I may delve into at a later time, but one point in particular made me think.
We were talking about whether assessment should drive teaching, or teaching drive assessment. One the points I made was that my recent writing assessments revealed huge gaps in the children’s learning (largely due, I might add, to the change in curriculum rather than teacher failings), which I am intending to close. The conversation that followed centred around “teaching to the test.” Now, I don’t believe for one minute that this is what I am doing. I believe there is a huge difference between this and gap analysis. After all, surely the purpose of a test is to find out the strengths and weaknesses of our pupils? Yes, we need a measure of their progress, but we also need to be able to teach them what they don’t know. Much of this can be seen in their day to day work, but lots of their misconceptions can be masked by focus groups, shared or guided writing and class teaching. I have learned that my children aren’t clear on possessive apostrophes, on changing the meaning of words by adding prefixes or suffixes, on using a variety of nouns and pronouns in their work, and many more things. I can’t just ignore this and plod on with what I had intended to do with them: that would make me a bad teacher. But am I a bad teacher for focussing on this with them? Am I “teaching to the test” so they can get a better score/level/judgement/whatever-we-are-going-to-call-it next time round? Or am I just helping them to become better writers with a better grasp of the English language and a knowledge of how to use the correct grammar? I think the latter. I have written before about how I’m a bit of a grammar pendant who gets frustrated by the poor use of English seen on social media and other places (see my previous post). Our new curriculum, whilst it could be a little dry and boring if taught in the wrong way, gives us as teachers the opportunity to do something to improve this. Of course, I have no intention of dedicating entire lessons to pronouns or possessive plural nouns: that would be dreadful. But now I know that almost the entire class has a weakness in this area, I can do something to address it. Maybe I should have picked this up via the children’s every day writing. I make no apologies for not spotting this, except to say that I was focussing on a thousand other things in their work. However, my assessments have done their job: not to say at what age/stage/whatever each child is working, nor to say how much progress they have made, but to show me where I need to focus to make them the best writers I possibly can.