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The Tension between Formative and Summative Assessment in ITE

We’ve recently been conducting a very unscientific, straw-polling exercise of how people working in teacher training perceive the proposed changes to the ITE inspection framework that Ofsted are planning to roll out in September. Two categories of response have emerged:
  • (occasionally reluctant) agreement that the changes make sense on paper;
  • fear that to adapt provision to these new criteria will be a huge headache in practice.
  • When you look at the changes that have been made to how trainee assessment is going to be evaluated, both of these responses seem reasonable!

    “The new framework reflects the shift in focus of our education inspections from outcomes to the substance of education. It removes aspects of inspection that do not genuinely assess the quality of teacher training. This will help make sure ITE partnerships are focused on the things that have the greatest impact on trainees’ education, and ultimately, children and young people.”

    Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector on the changes to the inspection framework

    On Paper

    Ofsted are clearly hoping to refocus their inspections (and judgements!) away from oversimplified interpretations of training outcomes and onto the form, content and quality of the training being provided. This can be seen in the shift in language around assessment. The old framework stated that inspectors should “judge the accuracy of the ITE partnership’s assessment of trainees” and collect evidence on how well trainees are being prepared to meet the Teachers’ Standards (p15). Under this old framework, Ofsted have been evaluating providers on how well their trainees perform against this summative end-point and how accurately providers were assessing this performance. So it is no surprise that so many ITE providers have built their teacher training provision (and feedback and progress monitoring!) around the Teachers’ Standards.
    The new framework sets out a very different vision of assessment. Inspectors will now “evaluate how assessment of trainees is used to support the teaching of the ITE curriculum” (p37). For a provider to be deemed good or outstanding, inspectors will have judged that assessment of trainees “diagnoses deficits and allows remediation of gaps” and “avoids the premature use of summative assessments, for example generic outcome descriptors such as the teachers’ standards” (p43). Ofsted inspectors will now be interested in understanding the role formative assessment plays in ITE programmes – a concept that didn’t feature once in the old framework!
    The importance of formative assessment will not be news to anyone working in ITE. Providers, mentors and trainees themselves have always known that feedback designed to help trainees prioritise their next steps and highlight areas for marginal gains are crucial to making improvements in teaching practice. Current research-evidence seems to support this too. In their recent book summarising the available research on how to design effective professional learning and training, Neelan and Kirschner make the claim that formative feedback may be the most important technique for supporting learning (see full quote below).
    On paper, at least, Ofsted have made some positive changes that will align what inspectors will be looking for more closely with what providers are already doing and what the research indicates will give our trainees the best chance of improving their practice. That’s the good news.

    “Feedback is one of the most, if not the most, important techniques for supporting learning. Giving effective feedback has also been found to be one of the most powerful education interventions to improve learning. According to Shank (2017), effective feedback positively affects learning outcomes and motivation to learn and can help build accurate schema (meaning a mental concept that organizes categories of information and the relationships between them) John Hattie (2011) found that giving feedback has an extremely large effect on learning, with an effect size… of 0.79… To make it even better, the effect of formative feedback (eg feedback for learning) is 0.90.”

    Mirjam Neelen and Paul A Kirschner, Evidence-Informed Learning Design, p196

    In Practice

    Despite this positive repositioning from Ofsted on their understanding of the role of assessment, there are other aspects of the new framework that present interesting and non-trivial practical challenges for ITE providers trying to put this changed role of assessment into practice:
  • Ofsted still very much expect “accurate and rigorous final assessments for the award of QTS” against the Teachers’ Standards (p43).
  • Inspectors are instructed to “consider evidence of appropriate monitoring and assessment of trainees’ progress in mastering the components of the overall ITE curriculum” (p48)
  • Providers should avoid “any attempt to track progress numerically or through premature use of final outcome descriptors” (p49).
  • Taken together, a tension between formative and summative assessment emerges. Providers are expected to avoid prematurely assessing against the teachers’ standards, but that does not mean that these standards are any less important in relation to determining trainees’ final outcomes. Providers are expected to have mechanisms for monitoring the progress that their trainees are making (presumably so that the provider can identify underperformance and intervene), but this should not be progress against an end-point assessment, but rather against the providers’ ITE curriculum. The writers of the framework perhaps even sensed this tension themselves given that they discourage “premature use of final outcome descriptors” four times in the document (p28, 37, 43, 49).
    In practice then, it seems that ITE providers are being asked to develop mechanisms for promoting formative assessment and monitoring progress without using a summative framework to measure against. Even if on paper this is a result of some genuine improvements to the inspection framework, in practice providers will have to ask themselves some challenging questions:
  • How do we adapt our assessment practices so they do not rely on a summative framework but still provide mechanisms for identifying progress – and crucially underperformance – in our cohort of trainees? 
  • How do we support our trainees in preparing for their final summative assessment without “premature use of generic outcome descriptors, such as the teachers’ standards” (p28)? 
  • How do we ensure that our mentors are fully trained to deliver a revised approach to assessment that focuses on formative support? (We are writing more about the changing role of the mentor in a later blog post).
  • And how do we identify cross-programme strengths and weaknesses to drive course improvement without attempting to track trainee progress numerically in some way? 
  • Conclusion

    The new framework does represent a step forward. Weighing the pig does not make it fatter and actually might a) distract from the important work of feeding and b) prompt unnecessary or premature worry to an already stressed-out ‘pig’. (Apologies to any trainees who happen to be reading this!)
    But it is also clear that providers are going to have to adapt their practice to respond to this shift. No one can blame providers for becoming overly reliant on the Teachers’ Standards for assessment. The old framework essentially asked them to! On the other hand, the new framework has simply unearthed or amplified a tension that was already there. The best way to prepare trainee teachers for the new profession is to (formatively) support and encourage them to improve their practice. But we also need to give our trainee teachers the best chance of (summatively) obtaining QTS at the end of their training. We are going to have to embrace this tension. We are going to have to refine/redesign our approaches to course design, mentoring and progress tracking to make sure we don’t lose sight of either of these two very different roles of assessment.

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