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Posts tagged with: assessment

Unleashing the Complexity

Assessment in the new Scottish Curriculum is still a hot topic for all involved. Obviously there’s the looming (or present for some schools) implementation of the new National Qualifications, but there’s still a lot of head scratching going on around assessment in 3-15.

Whilst there are obviously many issues around the new approach, there are a particular group which interest me. These are around the complexities which arise from the new model of assessment in 3-15. I’ll broadly categorise these as…

We’re not as sure about where pupils are at. Without the National Assessments how can we be sure which level a pupil is working at? This for me is the wrong way of looking at it. Could it be that we were never sure? Perhaps the National Assessments provided a false sense of confidence as they papered over the complexities that were always there? People are complicated learners. We will never know precisely where one learner is on their journey and any categories will always be imperfect. This will be especially the case when the categorisation is achieved through a limited piece of assessment. Isn’t it the case that the 5-14 levels were originally supposed to be assigned by the teacher based on a wide range of evidence with the National Assessments used more as a secondary benchmarking tool? That sounds much better than the way it appeared to have ended up in many cases. If we are ever confident that we have a system that can simply and easily categorise something as complex and lacking in understanding as learning into a number of boxes, then we have gone seriously wrong. Learning, and learners, are complex. Assessment and judgements of progress should therefore be complex also, we should worry if they are not. We need to try and relax a little and revel in the complexity.

What do we do with pupils who haven’t achieved a level? Let’s ask this another way…what we do with pupils who haven’t progressed as much as others? This isn’t a new problem. Surely the issue of pupils progressing in different ways and at different rates didn’t arrive with Curriculum of Excellence? I’m not claiming that the issue of differentiating in a classroom is easy, I’m just trying to suggest it’s not new. It has, perhaps, been brought more to the fore as a result of what I’ve already discussed above. If complexities of progress have been brought out due to a more holistic approach to assessment, perhaps this is more likely to lead to the identification of a differential of progression in a class. Again, although this isn’t easy to deal with…surely this can only be a good thing from the pupils’ perspective?

How can we report to parents without “robust” evidence? For me, this question reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of reports to parents. We are not the SQA. Our job is not to “assign” grades or levels which need be backed up with tons of rigorous evidence. The purpose of a report to parents should be to communicate progress in such a way to allow parents to support their children to make whatever next steps are required to improve. As such, I think it’s more important that the comment in the report reflects the complexities of the young person’s learning, than providing some sort of “reliable” level. In which case we need a holistic approach to assessment which allows us to validly access all the different forms of progression and not over rely on one particular form of summative assessment in our quest for reliability.

These thoughts reflect my own developing understanding of assessment in Curriculum for Excellence as a teacher and CfE Development Officer and I’m sharing them here in the hope that they help other teachers…however, I also appreciate that until those that hold us to account take a similar approach to assessment and progression we’ll always be a bit up against it. But, that’s not a reason to give up. We need to keep embracing the complexity and pushing others to do so too. Otherwise, we risk selling our learners short.

Getting to know the E’s and O’s

I know, I know. The experiences and outcomes have been around for ages now. Surely we’re long past getting to know them? In my experience however, this simply isn’t the case. Many of us seem to have taken something from them first time through, but now that we’re approaching the blunt end of assessment and reporting we’re beginning to wonder if we got them right.

Through our work with Myra Young, we’re being encouraged to take another look at the experiences and outcomes – this time starting with the purpose. This can often lead to a quite different approach to planning. Rather than looking at the experiences and outcomes and jumping straight to the activities we’d carry out, we think first about what the purposes of the outcomes are in terms of learning, how this could be evidenced and what the success criteria are.

On our inservice days next week at my new school, we’re lucky enough to be receiving CPD from teachers at Cramlington Learning Village with a view to planning our lessons using the accelerated learning cycle. But first I’m going to suggest that we need to ensure we understand the curriculum before jumping into detailed collaborative planning of lessons based on the learning cycle.

This can be illustrated with one of our science experiences and outcomes. Whilst in the past this might have led to us planning a series of lessons covering all the various organs of the systems we feel we need to ‘cover’, a fresh look at the purpose of the learning outlined in the curriculum brings a different emphasis and therefore quite different lessons.

We often complain the experiences and outcomes are vague and complex (which they are…but do we really want a version of the National Curriculum instead?) but if they are how can we expect to be fully familiar with them already? As difficult as it is to accept from the perspective of development work (which is going to get worse when the new NQs start arriving), the reality is that our understanding of the curriculum is going to evolve over time and I’m doing my best to try to keep my mind open to that…

Cross-posted on pedagoo.org

Second thoughts

In a recent post I outlined my proposal for the final part of my MEd. In it I provided a rationale for my intention to involve pupils in planning learning in order to increase their engagement and described the steps I intended to carry out to achieve this. However, as I’ve mentioned – I’ll be going to a new school pretty soon. So, should I continue with my plans?

My initial thought was that I would…and the school was very supportive of this, but that Cramlington visit has really begun to change my mind. The school is really going for implementing the accelerated learning cycle and learn2learn and I’ve become concerned that whilst my proposal is complimentary to these developments, it is coming from a different angle and could well become a bit of a ‘bolt-on’ for anyone I managed to convince to become involved.

So, what am I going to do? I’ve decided that I need to shift the emphasis of the intervention to be much more aligned to the direction of the school and the needs (and workload) of the staff. So I’m considering instead coming from the perspective of evaluating the impact of the learning cycle on learning. This could be in terms of knowledge, understanding and skills development, but also in terms of pupil involvement and engagement.

I’m even finding some really useful literature on this, such as Geoff Petty, Black et. al. and Paul Rose. Through this reading I’m becoming increasingly convinced that my intervention could end up becoming much enhanced by this change by adding a much greater depth to the learning process, and therefore the enquiry.

Having said all that, it is pretty daunting to make such a fundamental change after writing and submitting a 5000 word proposal…but I have to respond to the needs of my new school…

Boxing us in?

I love a good spreadsheet. I think my addiction began when I worked briefly at Victoria Quay after I graduated on the Scottish Environment Statistics Online database. It was then that I began to discover some of the powerful features of excel…such as VLOOKUP…amazing!

Once I was teaching I made every possible use of the features available in excel, and I’ll even admit to enjoying spending more time than I should’ve getting my spreadsheets all set up at the start of each session for my new classes. But now I’m beginning to think the unthinkable…

The reason for this is all the work I’m doing at the minute on Assessment in Curriculum for Excellence. Some of the definitions supplied in Building the Curriculum 5 surrounding Developing, Consolidating and Secure and how these relate to Breadth, Challenge and Application are challenging and require a change in mindset.

If, once I’m back in the classroom, I am going to record how much and how well my students are learning against these sorts of criteria…how on earth am I going to achieve this in excel? The conclusion I’m coming to is, I won’t.

To get this sort of information into excel I’m going to have to convert this rich and complex language into very crude numbers, letters or colours. This will not even serve much purpose when it comes to writing reports as the records will be so crude that they will not provide much information to assist me in reaching a judgement. And worse, there’s a chance that this approach to recording assessment could actually limit my approaches to learning and teaching!

So then, if excel is not appropriate for the task, why would I use it? I don’t know – because I always have perhaps? That’s not a good enough reason.

I believe that learning, and therefore assessment, is rich and complex and so I want to try to capture this complexity and free myself from the constraints of excel. I think what I’m going to try to do is have a hard-backed A4 notebook with a few pages for each class and a page for each student and use this to record progress.

For someone like me, this seems a bit like a backwards step – but perhaps it’s necessary…

Some thoughts on formative assessment

Are your traffic lights doing anything? What happens after your two stars and a wish? Do your pupils listen to their peers?

For some time now I’ve been concerned by the frequent utterance of the phrase “AifL is embedded”. There is often a perception that schools and teachers did all that work sharing formative assessment techniques as part of the AifL programme, and now we’re onto CfE so all is fine. I’ve often struggled to articulate my concerns with this point of view…but I’m clear that I have not fully embedded all aspects of the AifL triangle into my practice and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. I’ve also demonstrated in the past that BtC5 raises the bar in terms of expectations of pupil involvement in assessment.

A couple of things recently have really helped clarify my thoughts on this. Firstly, I’m very lucky to be working with Myra Young to develop some Assessment & Moderation Circles with Secondary Teachers in East Lothian. She has a great way of describing the difference between formative assessment and formative assessment techniques. For example, if your pupils peer assess each others work with traffic lights then while this has the potential to be formative it only becomes formative if the recipient of the feedback does something with it. They need to make a change and learn from it. Otherwise you have a multicoloured piece of peer summative assessment. Likewise, if you give the pupils a prelim examination and then provide an opportunity to reflect on this and improve as a result – then this is formative assessment.

I think perhaps we have too often allowed the techniques to become synonymous with ‘formative assessment’ and we’ve forgotten that doing the techniques isn’t enough – the pupils need to learn from them.

This weekend, I’ve also discovered a fantastic Research Briefing from the TLRP programme which addresses this issue also. In it they state:

Assessment for Learning helps teachers promote learning how to learn in ways which are in line with their own values, and reduces excessive performance orientation. But it is difficult to shift from reliance on specific techniques to practices based on deep principles.

Advice on Assessment for Learning techniques is useful to teachers in the short term. But progressive professional development requires teachers to re-evaluate their beliefs about learning, the way they structure tasks, and the nature of their classroom roles and relationships.

From TLRP RB17: Learning how to learn – in classrooms, schools and networks

That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say. AifL provided many of us with the techniques, but CfE is asking us to take the next step to deeper principles. How do we do this? The Research Briefing suggests:

Classroom-focused inquiry by teachers is a key condition for promoting learner autonomy.

Sound familiar?