‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.’

Beyond the challenges of TAGs, there have been important gains and learnings for the future of asssessment

Rachel Macfarlane Director of Education Services, Herts for Learning

As school teachers and leaders emerge, bleary eyed, head sore and many experiencing symptoms not dissimilar to PTSD, it is perhaps timely to examine what we have learnt from the TAGs (teacher assessed grades) process that has been undertaken in schools up and down the country in recent weeks.

Rebecca Kingston, Assistant Headteacher at Ashlyns School in Berkhamstead, reflected that the generation of TAGs has been, without doubt, the most tiring and stressful experience of her 20+ year career: ‘As an A level English teacher, I found myself spending 2-3 hours on each student’s folder, following hours of marking on each piece within it, agonising over the holistic grade. I was so aware of the weight of responsibility that I couldn’t see the wood for the trees.’

It is, perhaps, no surprise that many teachers are praying for a return to a system of 100% exams post pandemic. And yet Rebecca Kingston is a big fan of the controlled assessments that used to form part of the GCSE assessment system in many subjects. They ‘gave learners the opportunity to show their strengths, knowledge and skills in a range of contexts, not just in terminal, high stakes, timed exams.’ The argument for the voice and judgements of teachers, who have tracked their performance over time in a range of settings, to contribute to final grades is a compelling one.

To judge the profession’s views on teacher assessments at this moment in time would be a mistake. The process that teachers and leaders have been subjected to this summer was intolerable: guidance was issued late, it lacked specific parameters and staff worked to near-impossible time frames. Schools were required to design their own assessments but with very vague grade descriptors and limited exemplification. The secrecy surrounding the level three quality assurance at exam board level was unhelpful and there is understandable cynicism in the profession around the extent to which there will be any real external standardisation.

Perhaps most problematic of all, was the requirement that schools must submit the same evidence for all students in their cohort but a school down the road could submit completely different evidence for their learners. Liz Shapland, Deputy Director of Education Services at Herts for Learning, who has been supporting leaders of secondary schools to navigate the TAGs process reflects, ‘Aside from the incredible workload, perhaps the greatest anxiety has been the perceived lack of consistency between centres. The extent of the responsibility felt by staff is huge. Conscientious teachers and leaders are concerned that they somehow may have unwittingly disadvantaged their students. In the summer, when results are published, the narrative will undoubtedly be about grade inflation and teachers ‘gaming’ the system. This will not reflect the significant workload, care and professionalism schools have displayed in trying to ensure students receive fair and accurate results.’

And yet, despite all the stresses and challenges of the TAGs arrangements, layered on top of the stresses and challenges presented by the ongoing pressures of providing safe and socially distanced education for over 16 months, teachers are still able to reflect on the benefits of a teacher assessed grade system and express optimism about the opportunities arising from this summer. 

Rebecca Kingston explained that her school operated a cycle of assessment weeks followed by teaching weeks. This allowed down–time between tests, which benefitted learners who struggle with the pressure of exams and those who lack parental support. ‘It could be argued that for disadvantaged learners this is a much better process. Staff were able to provide support and encouragement between tests to ensure that students did themselves justice. Also, there have been so many rich conversations over recent weeks between more and less experienced staff, those who have had previous experience of exam marking or teacher assessment and those who have not. Their discussions about ranking evidence and what constitutes performance at each grade has been invaluable and will impact positively on teaching and learning.’ 

Liz Shapland agrees: ‘Students have had more opportunities over a protracted period of time to demonstrate their skills and knowledge. Surely this is something we should try to hold onto. Some centres are reporting that students with SEND have performed better than in traditional exams because of the support, guidance and timeframes involved. The level of standardisation and moderation of evidence folders has provided a robust scrutiny of assessment that has appeared to be way above what some schools would normally engage in. The professional dialogue with other colleagues within and across schools and professional bodies has led to identification of training needs to support future cohorts.’

So, from the winter of despair comes the spring of hope. Effecting change from a one dimensional exam-based assessment system to a more nuanced approach with an element of teacher assessment will not be without challenges and teething pains. But, as Alan Henshall, headteacher at Roundwood Park School in Harpenden reflects, ‘Teachers know students best. They can make much more reliable longitudinal judgements on the range of skills and knowledge a learner has.’ Placing faith in assessments provided by teachers who have been trained in the process, and whose grades are standardised and externally moderated has to be a good thing, leading to a system that rewards students more fairly for their achievements.

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