EEF Blog: Learning recovery and the role of diagnostic assessment
The EEF's national content manager, Alex Quigley, explains the important role diagnostic assessment will play in recovering pupils' learning when schools reopen fully next month.
Barely a day passes when headlines about education aren’t splashed on the front pages. From a ‘lost generation’, to Covid-19 leading to a once-in-a-lifetime change for the better, the plight of pupils and the power of our schools is being scrutinised and debated daily.
EEF-commissioned research undertaken after the first lockdown, last year, involving 5900 year 2 pupils, indicates that there has been, on average, learning losses for many pupils. Additionally, it showed the disadvantaged gap is likely to have grown slightly.
As more evidence mounts, for pupils at all stages of their schooling, we are likely to see a sobering picture emerge of the differential experience of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds – those who may struggle for devices, internet access, and less obvious supports, like timely help from a parent with their home learning – when compared with their peers.
At the same time, we can also explore the many positives achieved during the pandemic. From pupils who have thrived with new routines, solutions that have been wrought by hectic heads and determined teachers, and the positive relationships that have been forged between schools and their communities.
There will be learning losses and there will be learning gains.
Crucially, teachers and schools will have to seek out the actual impact of interruptions caused by the pandemic on individual pupils in their care. It will be carefully calibrated assessments, undertaken in classrooms, which will offer a more accurate and complete picture of any necessary ‘catch up’ or otherwise.
‘Catching up’ with what? The role of assessment
To explore the real nuance of any lost learning, or specific issues for individual pupils, schools will put effective assessments to work.
In truth, the topic of diagnostic assessment does not emblazon many headlines. However, in the coming months, as many pupils return to classrooms post-lockdown, schools undertaking diagnostic assessments will matter a great deal.
For some pupils, the experience of remote learning will have addressed important curriculum topics and honed important skills. But consider the case of young James in year 7. Back in September, James started secondary school with insecure reading skills and his handwriting lacked legibility and fluency. Simply accessing the curriculum remotely proved a persistent challenge.
Knowing where James is starting from as he returns to school will help his teacher know what next steps will most benefit him. For example, his English teacher may use Professor Tim Rasinski’s‘ multi-dimensional fluency scale’ to assess his reading fluency, along with a simple Words Per Minute (WPM) measure. Additionally, a diagnostic for James’ handwriting, such as the ‘Handwriting Legibility Scale (HLS)’, could lead to some timely handwriting practise.
James’ other subject teachers will no doubt be deciding upon diagnostic assessments for upcoming summer curriculum topics. For example, in history, a bumper quiz about the medieval period may raise some misconceptions and gaps in his understanding. Equally, discussion, debate, quizzing and more, will foreground gaps in knowledge and misconceptions that emerged during remote teaching, given ‘normal’ feedback likely proved tricky.
EEF Guide to Supporting School Planning, 2021
Practical, evidence-based guidance to support schools in this busy and unpredictable academic year
These diagnostic assessments will be crucial in steering decisions about how teachers support pupils like James. Of course, some pupils will need some additional reading or writing practise, a topic – or three – may need some well-timed revision, whilst some knowledge and skills will likely require re-teaching. Curriculum adaptations will be key.
As such, the stuff of ‘catch up’ will match the familiar routines of assessing struggling pupils that preceded the pandemic.
James, like so many peers, may quickly regain losses and achieve the notional ‘catch up’ of typical progress for a year 7 pupil in reading. If he is anything like my year 7 daughter, he will be much more preoccupied with catching up with his friends than any academic pursuit!
And, of course, though it often doesn’t garner the same attention, diagnostic assessment can and will apply to well-being and social and emotional learning too. Indeed, considering well-being and academic attainment will likely prove important for pupils like James.
We can consider what primary school rituals and goodbyes James missed last summer, or the crucial bonds between his peers that have weakened in the past months. In response, his school may use a useful diagnostic questionnaire, such as the ‘Myself-as-a-Learner (MALs) scale’ to help explore James’ confidence and well-being in school.
All these diagnostic assessments will offer a manageable and meaningful route supporting pupils that is more instructive than the averages of national data. These diagnostics may not be generalisable, and we will likely need to treat the results with caution, and so teacher judgement is key.
As the talk of ‘catch up’ inevitably fades from the front pages, we need to sustain the support for schools so that they can do their vital work. With the renewal of relationships and routines, and well-chosen assessments, schools can make the decisions that support James to thrive.