‘We know what we are, but not what we may be’- Shakespeare, Hamlet
It has become a truism in education that good professionals are able to predict the grades of their pupils accurately. Like most truisms, this needs further examination.
If a running coach spends their time making trainees run race after race, and times each one, he will be able to predict their performance in the final competition very accurately. But does that mean he is a good running coach?
No. Good running coaches do not spend their time making trainees run race after race. They break down the complex skill of successfully running races into its component parts, and assign their trainees exercises to build up those component parts. Instead of wasting time having them run races so that they can measure their performance, they have trainees build stamina and speed through a carefully designed set of exercises. If they want to know how their trainees are progressing, they look at how they are improving in those exercises, because they know that improvement in those exercises will ultimately lead to a better final performance.
Likewise, good teachers do not waste time making pupils do the final performance so that they can measure their attainment in it. Instead, they break down that final performance into its component parts, and focus on improving pupils’ abilities in those. If it’s an essay on Macbeth that pupils need to write, the component parts consist of knowledge of the play’s plot, characters and themes, knowledge of the literary and dramatic techniques used by Shakespeare to communicate these, and knowledge of the historical background which informs the play, such as James I’s Daemonologie and the struggles for power in medieval Scotland.
Instead of wasting time making pupils write essay after essay on Macbeth, the effective teacher will build gradually towards that final performance with lots of low stakes testing on core knowledge. These tests will look very little like the final performance. They could be multiple choice questions on Jacobean beliefs about witchcraft, or oral quick-fire questioning on the staging of the banquet scene in Act Three, or tightly focused analytical paragraphs on the imagery of damnation in one of Macbeth’s soliloquies, or a myriad of other methods of formative assessment that both measure and embed the knowledge and skills required for the final performance.
None of these formative assessment tasks will generate data that is useful for forecasting grades. But all of them will be integrated into a programme of teaching which leads to an excellent formal performance. Thanks to the benefits of retrieval practice, every little test will make the knowledge that much more secure.
The teacher who uses these methods will be focused on actually teaching, not generating data. They will be focused on pupils, not spreadsheets. And they may well forecast final grades less accurately than another teacher who puts their pupils through endless repetitions of the final performance, in the mistaken belief that this is the best way of preparing for it.
The obsession with accurate grade forecasts is anti-educational. If managers think it allows them to target their interventions more accurately, they are wrong. The kind of assessment that makes forecasts more accurate is not the kind of assessment that builds a precise picture of where knowledge gaps are, so that teaching can be more finely tuned. A whole essay is too complex to allow teachers to gauge exactly where they need to reteach key knowledge.
So let’s drop this obsession and focus instead on making the grades as good as they can possibly be. Otherwise we’re just generating self-fulfilling prophecies and preening ourselves on our professional skill, while in reality we are limiting the attainment of our pupils.