The Positive Power of Assessment – finding the right route

What is it that is so interesting about children? It seems a simple question. Parents know their own children well - or so they think. Then the child does something that threatens the security of that knowledge.

It might be a new behaviour, a recognition that their child is different to others and that they don’t have all the answers. The comfort of being able to quantify their child’s abilities is suddenly threatened by the child themselves and the parents need to look for an answer to why that is.

Psychologists are detectives. We observe, investigate and draw conclusions. We solve mysteries and puzzles and sometimes we get it right. We have to adopt different personae and learn ‘Columbo’ like tricks to find out what we need to know. It all adds up to just being curious about children!

school children
Image: Flickr Creative Commons http://bit.ly/1lEjCGB

Every child I have ever worked with is different – some more different than others but different all the same. So the main part of my work is finding out what those differences are and what we can all do to enable every child to feel comfortable with themselves in whatever environment they are in.

Assessments map the route

Assessments are the most important part of what I do. It is the way I find out about every child. They give me the data I need to design and implement strategies that positively affect a child’s progress – creating change as an agent for good.

These are not assessments carried out to limit and restrict access to resources. They are not a gatekeeping exercise tied into limited funds. They are assessments that lead to improvements in the life chances of any child and are not restricted to those with special needs.

Parents should not be afraid of any assessment process, whether it is educational, social or medical. They should understand it and question its usefulness in throwing light on perceived difficulties - their severity and their frequency.

I would encourage every parent whose child has to be assessed, to talk to the psychologist, social worker or doctor and get them to explain what the purpose and potential outcomes of each assessment to be. What does it do? What does it tell us? What can we learn? And what can parents and professionals do with the results to help children meet their potential in school, at home or in the community.

Assessments building foundations for learning strategies

Eight years ago I started to work with a mainstream secondary school that had previously been 100% selective. It had been one of Margaret Thatcher’s City Technology Colleges. With a new Headteacher and Governors in full support, the school gradually abandoned its selective status and became a community-based school. It is now an Academy.  And with that change of status has come a change of student profile. Over the past 6 years the number of children on the SEN register has grown from a handful to 220 – that is 15% of the whole school population, including 36 children with statements.

To meet the change in need the school developed a Nurture Group approach to its Year 7 entrants. Students requiring support for a wide range of needs were identified at Primary school and joined the Pathways class. This started with 14 students in 2009 and now there are nine classes across Years 7 to 11 with over 140 students receiving tailored support appropriate to their age and development. And I have assessed every one of them - some of them up to five times!

The results of the assessments have challenged and changed the way that staff work with students across the school and helped develop a supportive framework that is making the school a real learning organization.

As an aside, it is not insignificant that the school is predominantly staffed by young, highly professional and energetic teachers who have shown a willingness to learn and develop new skills – but more of that another time.

The children in the Pathways classes were identified as having a significant difficulty that required a long term intervention. The demands of the modern Academy also meant that  progress needed to be made and to be shown to justify resources, inform staff and invigorate parents.

We achieved this by finding out what the children can and can’t do – where their strengths and weaknesses are, making recommendations that can be followed up in class or at home. We then measure the progress of every child every year as well as offering support when needed through each term. This re-assessment helps staff and students understand what they need to do to reach their next level and adds to the accumulation of what works best for them.

In this context what we focus on in the school is the child’s ability to learn. They may have emotional or behavioural difficulties, have a cognitive or social deficit, be on the spectrum or have a medical condition. They can be highly intelligent but find the work hard, or the school a frightening place to be. They can be anxious or overly confident. All will need to know what they have to do to make the most of the skills they have. The children are involved in the assessment process from initial testing to recommendations and help set their own targets and achievement levels in each class. This focus on their ability to learn leads to progress, a rise in self-esteem and an increase in motivation.

boy writing
Credit: Purple Sherbet Photography

Anatomy of an Assessment

So, what do we assess? We primarily look at each student’s memory, reasoning and processing skills. Do they have a better memory for pictures than words or is it their spatial memory that dominates the way they see the world? Can they problem solve in an abstract way or are they still working with real objects? And how fast can they grasp new information or work with familiar material fluently? These are the fundamental building blocks of achieving in a mainstream classroom, even with support from staff and a smaller class size. Literacy and numeracy skills are not enough on their own.

The results of the assessments we have conducted over the past five years throw a sharp light on the interference of government initiatives in literacy and numeracy in Primary Schools.

In my working lifetime for example, Phonics has been introduced three times by various governments in an attempt to stave off criticism of declining reading standards. It has always failed because it does not take account of the thousands of children that are primarily visual and spatial learners - not verbal or auditory.

Of the 85% of children in the Pathways groups who have a Reading Age at least 2 years behind their chronological age when they arrive at school, all of them have predominantly visual or spatial memories. And they also have very low levels of auditory memory - making them unlikely to benefit from a spoken, phonics approach. They have been failed by their Primary schools and by successive education policies that believe one size fits all.

What we do, is start from the results of the assessments and devise a curriculum for each child dominated by visual images, spatial tasks, problem solving games and puzzles and put these activities and materials into a nurturing environment where there is a balance of teaching and learning styles. The results have been, over time, spectacular. We have had individual children improve their reading age by over five years in just nine months.

This is not down to innovative teachers or methods (though it does help) but mainly down to a change in the child’s motivation and interest in what they are doing. Being able to identify what a child is good at should be at the heart of every school - but so many cater for the lowest common denominator, not the needs of the individual. Success breeds success however small it may be to start with and that start is usually to be found in an assessment of what a child can do.

This is what assessment should be about - finding a way that a child can access what a school has to offer but also making the school realise that it cannot teach every child in the same way. So we continue to assess, to explore and discover how and why children behave and learn as they do, and in so doing we can find a way to ensure they are as successful as they deserve to be and as important as we believe they are.

You can find Charlie's website here

Charlie Mead

Child Psychologist at CPS for Children
Charlie Mead is both a Child and Educational Psychologist who spends most of his time developing nurture groups for children and parents in mainstream secondary schools as well as proving practical support for children in care homes.
Charlie Mead

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