At a recent maths conference, I ran a workshop on assessment and the work of exam boards. The session was an introduction, and we’ll be sharing more about assessment in the coming months. In the interim, and for those who couldn’t attend, here are some of the key themes.

Anyone can write a question…

But is it a good assessment item? There’s something in the fabric of mathematicians that makes puzzles and problems appealing, but it’s worth remembering that (sadly) not everyone is like us. Although we might look at a question and see its mathematical merits, that does not necessarily mean it is a good assessment item. When we’re creating papers, we start by establishing what we want to find out, for example can low ability students develop a strategy to solve a ratio problem in a real-life context. Only when we know what we want to test do we develop the question to fit, meaning we know what we will learn from student responses before they answer the question, and we can ensure that the question is properly focussed.

Formative assessment also extends to the marks you award

In high stakes exams, we put a lot of effort into ensuring the marking is of a consistent standard. However, that standard might not always be appropriate for formative purposes. Take, for example, this response:

GCSE Maths example Q

In a real GCSE, we would consider this just enough working to justify full marks, but it’s a real borderline call. If this is the level of working you’re seeing from students, it might be better to penalize them in low-stakes formative assessment in a bid to instil good practice for the exam.

Consider the language of exams

Making sure our papers are as accessible as possible is a big focus for us. This goes beyond reading age or simple word count, as illustrated in this example. At the same time, we can’t have any ambiguity that could mean a question is misunderstood and achieving this requires structure and use of specific language. If students aren’t familiar with this approach, it can impact on their exam performance. So next time you ask a question in class or write a homework, it might be worth considering “how would that need to change in order to appear in an exam?” If you can make simple changes in the classroom, it might just help those borderline students in their exam.

What are you going to do with the results?

Assessment should be the validation of teaching and learning. Formative assessment, used well, is essential to effective learning and will tell you a lot about how students are doing on a topic or in developing their skills. It’s also likely to tell them something too. Semi-summative assessment may be more problematic, and the results can be misused or misrepresented. If you’re going to invest the time in testing students, the results should be used to help inform teaching rather than purely for reporting. Data from one test can only tell you so much, which is why it’s important to have a range of evidence from a variety of assessments to make robust judgements to act on.

Right Purpose
If you want to learn more about our work in assessment, make sure you sign up for our emails and follow us on twitter @AQAMaths. If you have any questions you can tweet, email or call us on 0161 957 3852.

Ben Stafford, Qualification Manager for Maths