The Role of Comparative Judgement in School Improvement

As an English Adviser and as a part-time class teacher, I have been making use of the No More Marking site developed by Dr Chris Wheadon. In a previous blog I shared how I have structured cluster moderation of writing using the site. My own school has been using No More Marking to track progress, highlight areas to improve in writing and reduce the burden of marking to tick-lists. We have taken part in the year 6 and year 4 Sharing Standards projects and have just uploaded our year 3 writing for the first national judging about to take place in November.

Over the past year I have worked with over fifty teachers in various clusters using Comparative Judgment to assess writing in primary schools. We were not simply completing the moderation of teacher assessments and we were not merely satisfying our competiveness to see whether our writing was better than that of other schools locally and nationally. We became consistent in our teacher assessment. We benchmarked writing against the Interim Performance Descriptors thus creating our own exemplification. We identified the abilities and gaps in the writing skills of our pupils. We ranked writing across an entire school, enabling us to clearly see a plateau in writing attainment between year 4 and year 6; or possibly a dip in attainment in year 5; or identify our pupils working well above or below the rest of their year group.

What became apparent was that a rank’s validity is dependent on the focus of judging. Valuing creativity over the technical aspects of grammar, punctuation and spelling produces a very different rank to one generated by a group of judges who value technical accuracy over composition. In our cluster groups we used the National Curriculum to create our own expectations for a progression in writing. We thus supported each other with our interpretation of what should be taught and set realistic expectations as to what pupils’ writing should evidence. If the DfE is seriously considering the role of Comparative Judgement in the assessment of writing there must also be well managed, consistent and robust training provided to anyone who is expected to judge.

Over the year, the series of in-school and cluster judging improved our confidence to assess writing. Scrutinising a rank and benchmarking against criteria with a group of teachers makes better judges of us; it helps us to mark everyday writing more quickly, even when we’re not judging it for a No More Marking task. We freed ourselves from the formulaic use of tick-list criteria and used our professional judgement instead. We simply looked at what we had taught and then assessed writing for evidence of it. Heads engaged with our cluster work, and Comparative Judgement replaced time consuming and often uninformative marking. All of the teachers in our schools became judges; progression in writing across our schools was exemplified by scripts from each year group. And if we felt it wasn’t good enough we were able to look forward to addressing it either with CPD, changing approaches to teaching or by planning for more independent writing.

The clusters of schools ‘policed’ themselves in setting, agreeing and conforming to a strict guidance on the independence of pupil writing. Scaffolded writing looks great and performs well in a judging task but it’s ‘gamed’ and doesn’t allow for a level playing field. Cross curricular, independent writing is interesting. Writing that scores highly on composition will however perform poorly against scaffolded writing if pupils are not given the time to independently apply the skills of improving and editing.

We discovered that we honestly told each other what we had already suspected. Often the use of Comparative Judgement told us what we already knew, whether it was our pupils’ frustrating inability to apply the grammar that we’d been teaching or that their spelling was a real weakness. However, sharing this with a group of supportive professionals who could all ‘assess’ the same pieces of writing, again allowed us to work together and share ideas. When teachers felt insecure with planning we shared ideas, signaled each other to those who may be able to provide CPD and even planned together and coached each other. In short we shared expertise in a professional and non-threatening way.

Recently I was asked to explain how the use of Comparative Judgement and specifically the use of the No More Marking site, proved to be a valid use of teachers’ time. Here’s my answer: Comparative Judgement facilitates focused professional collaboration. Whilst my competitive side was satisfied or disappointed with the final rank of my pupils’ writing when compared to other schools, the real teacher in me gained so much more from Comparative Judgement in school and with clusters of schools. What we achieved was to expose our strengths and weakness as teachers and assessors of writing and as a result we have proceeded along a path of school led and peer supported school improvement.


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