Reflections on Assessment in History 

With a little bit of extra time this bank holiday weekend, in the midst of exam chaos, I have had the chance to do a little reading of Teaching History.

I have been an avid reader of Teaching History since being force fed a healthy diet of articles during my PGCE. From that an area of reading which has been my greatest interest has been articles around assessment and specifically how we can replace National Curriculum levels.

It is well documented that NC levels are an unfit and poorly suited model of assessment for students’ historical understanding. In a 2014 article Alex Ford draws on some excellent points made in earlier work and proposes his own model. This is an exceptional piece of work and is definitely worth a read and some reflection. Therefore here I want to draw out the reflection I have had reading this article and what I want to take from it.

What are we assessing for? 

This is ultimately the million dollar question and Ford draws out some key points exceptionally well, proposing three key objectives for assessment:

  1. Assessing attainment
  2. Describing progress
  3. Providing meaningful models for progression

With these three key objectives Ford makes clear that one assessment model, like NC levels, is not enough to achieve these goals. This fits in very well with an idea addressed in a recent course I attended with an OFSTED inspector. We took a look at educational terms like ‘progress’ and ‘attainment’ and took some time to compare and contrast them. What became clear from this activity was that these are very different terms but have become conflated.

Perhaps the biggest point I will be taking from this article then is Ford’s point that we should be using separate grading styles for attainment and progress. Therefore it is very clear to students that different aspects of their learning is being addressed.

Where is the history? 

As a PGCE student we used to hear horror stories about ‘Scary Mary’ the Geography tutor, whose catch phrase ‘where is the geography?’ haunted the Geographers nightmares. However, as I have reflected on that idea it becomes apparent that the question ‘where is the history?’ is a question that History teachers should be asking more.

For example, it can be very easy in history to spend a lesson studying Nazi propaganda, with a focus on ‘skills’, and miss the opportunity to explore some deep contextual knowledge.

As this threat of missing the historical knowledge exists for teachers, it can also exists for students. However, when we look at the old NC levels how much emphasis is given to substantive knowledge?

Therefore Ford emphasises that assessment should link to conceptual mastery and historical knowledge. For me I envisage that this would involve having an individualised mark scheme for every assessment (as is already good practice). With this it can be made clear what conceptual mastery we expect to see, but also what knowledge we expect students to cover. Therefore we can avoid some overly formulaic approach to writing history.

Aiming for a ‘gold standard’

This is a term that played the central role in my final research project into assessment during my PGCE and it is a key term used by Ford here.

In looking for a gold standard we want to see ‘what is the best of history?’ What is it that we want the best historians to do? Ford lays out some of key aspects of a gold standard in history. The idea of a gold standard for history is definitely something that every history department should be focusing on and discussing regularly. As a starting point maybe Ford’s article would be a great way to instigate some discussion.

For me I believe that the gold standard should be used not just for our assessment planning but out curriculum planning, where we can map out a plan of how we can aid student progress to achieve this standard.

The place of informal assessment

Aside from formal assessment, something which has regularly come up on writing about assessment has been low stakes informal assessment. The purpose of this is to ensure pupils factual and chronological knowledge. Making sure that they have a strong understanding as they engage with complex conceptual tasks.

This could take the form of quizzes, timelines, mini-essays, news reports, multiple choice questions and so on. This is something which I have done some of this year and certainly something I plan to do more of next year. I think that this can also fit well into ideas around cognitive science and working memory as we can ensure that information is being used regularly to shift it into students’ long-term memory.

Thus, informal feedback can be conducted at regular intervals, to sure up retention of knowledge, and the results can be recorded in exercise books.

What assessment should look like? 

Three key pillars surround Ford’s ideas about what assessment should look like.

  1. Formative feedback

This is the work which Ford says students should be given time to respond to in lessons. For this I think that there is the possibility to bring in some ideas about DIRTy feedback.

  1. Measures of attainment

As I explained earlier Ford splits up measures of attainment and progress. The outcome for measures of attainment can therefore come from the results of informal assessment and the grades for specific assessment task.

Ford also uses his own grading system here. In the world of exam factories however it is hard for many history teachers to move away from NC levels. Therefore this is where a traditional numbered system can still find a place.

  1. Measures of progress

This is a really interesting approach which I think is often being overlooked in schools, which is true progress. Progress is the buzzword in education but do we really mean progress? Ultimately just writing down a grade in a report every half term doesn’t constitute looking at students’ progress.

Therefore Ford creates descriptors for students’ progress and an evidence list for this.

Another interesting way of addressing progress is that Ford puts a +,= or – next to students work based on whether they are making progress.

Engaging parents with our idea of good history

For me this could be the key element to creating good history, involving parents in our thinking. Parents are not in our classrooms, are not undertaking the learning their students are, but they are often called on to help with homework. So what I envision is sharing our ideas of good history with parents.

This really could be a far simpler process than it may first seem. What I envision doing (and am sure many out there already are) is putting together a parent guide book for history. This could involve curriculum maps, assessment question and general guidance on what it is we will cover. It could also involve including some historical content for parents to help their children with their understanding. As well as places to find other resources.

However, what could be of really significant here is sharing with parents our gold standard and what progress in history looks like. Part of this could be sharing the evidence sheet Ford proposes with parents. With this we can therefore begin to share our ideas with parents.

Final reflections 

Ford is quick to emphasise that this is all still a working process and to really get an insight his article is worth reading.

However, although teaching history is an amazing publication it isn’t a place to go for a quick idea. Instead it is a way of inspiring some reflection. Therefore what I have tried to do here is give you an insight into some of my reflections from my reading.

It would be great to get some insight from other teachers on what they are doing with assessment so please leave a comment.