Good news in Assessment
The presentation was on Building the Curriculum 5 and followed the pattern that Keir Bloomer and I have been using to produce shorter versions of all of the Building the Curriculum series. The template involves 4 questions:-
- What is the purpose of the document?
- What stays the same in current practice?
- What is new or different?
- What action do schools have to take as a result of the document?
The general approach seems to have worked and the new versions seem to have been welcomed in schools, particularly Building the Curriculum 5. The reasons for this are fairly obvious. Building the Curriculum 5 is a massive endorsement of current practice and the directions that most of us want to take based on this.
It takes us right back to the diagram below, which is adapted from the original 5-14 Assessment document. It was one of the most helpful of the whole 5-14 series, but it seemed to be swamped by the other curriculum documents. What the diagram shows is the teaching process at its simplest and clearest. It puts assessment at the heart of that process. It is how we find out what children have learned and is the basis on which we review what we have done and decide what the next steps should be in their learning and our teaching. It makes absolutely clear that assessment is primarily concerned with planning learning, not with classifying or grading or measuring the overall attainment of schools or classes. Assessment can play a role in all of these, but they are not its main purpose. This recognises that the capacity to learn is the essential capacity for coping with the rapid change and uncertainty, which will increasingly characterise the 21st Century.
I still return constantly to David Hargreaves quote that –
“Purpose is not simply a target that an organisation chooses to aim for – it is an organisation’s reason for being. It needs to express what the organisation wants to accomplish in providing value to its stakeholders – and describe how these accomplishments can be measured.”
Surely our purpose as organisations is essentially concerned with developing our young people as learners and as rounded individuals. To fulfill that purpose we need to be committed, unrelentingly, to improvement and progression and for that we need assessment that is diagnostic and informative and that is what the 5-14 diagram directs us towards.
I think that Scottish teachers have made this sort of commitment to assessment and that explains the take-up, and enthusiasm, for Assessment is for Learning. Those who have adopted AifL will be well advanced in implementing Building the Curriculum 5. It is rooted in 4 elements –
- Supporting pupils’ learning
- Assuring the quality of assessment judgements
- Promoting classroom activities that will generate sound assessment evidence.
- Encouraging teachers to “share the standard” through local discussion e.g. in associated schools’ groups.
All of these reinforce the purpose of assessment, but they also begin to lead us in to the concept of moderation. This is a major source of anxiety for many people. They are concerned that moderation will become a time-consuming juggernaut where teachers will be locked away debating endlessly whether a piece of work is at a level within a level within the copious “shiny green folders” of You Tube fame. They see this as a sterile post mortem conducted on evidence of children’s performance in a formal and forensic way.
This cannot be the way forward. We need to be thinking about the standards that we want learners to reach when we are planning. We cannot measure their success, or ours, unless we begin the process of learning with clarity about the “sound assessment evidence” that we will generate and the quality that we expect that evidence to demonstrate.
One of the main messages of Curriculum for Excellence is that we need to plan jointly far more than we do. If we are to have progression and continuity, we must plan across stages and that planning needs to be informed by shared views about standards. When we think in this way the bulk of moderation is done in advance and is a productive process rather than a retrospective one.
This discussion about pupils’ work is a really positive element within continuous professional development. I believe that CPD is most effective when it is rooted in practice and practicality, rather than theory. Theory will follow practice and make sense in that context far more readily than if it is the starting point. That can be off-putting for teachers who are often suspicious of anything that they feel smacks of jargon, pretentiousness and distance from the reality of the classroom.
All of this endorsement makes one wonder what, if anything, is new in Building the Curriculum 5. It is a genuine and worthwhile question because some the elements generally deemed to be new will be characteristic of the best current practice. The new elements would generally be deemed to be –
- Application, breadth and challenge
- Genuine validity and reliability
- The National Assessment Resource
Application, breadth and challenge address a common concern among teachers, that the demand to push young people through attainment levels has meant that their learning is less secure. We are continually encountering situations where children seem unable to apply prior learning in new contexts, sometimes because they are not fully aware of the skills and knowledge that they have, sometimes because they are reluctant to face new challenges and unfamiliar contexts and sometimes because it is not what we normally ask them to do. Again, my experience would suggest that most teachers are happy to address this concern and want to offer breadth. Certainly schools offer an increasing number of opportunities for young people to acquire and apply a whole range of skills. Eco Schools, outdoor learning, international links and enterprise activities are all rich experiences that are common in our schools. Perhaps we need to do more to capture the evidence of progress that they offer. All of this suggests that teachers have been frustrated by the demand for apparent, rather than real, attainment.
I think that the idea of challenge is equally important and will make many of us think more about our practice. Too often we are not assessing children in the higher order skills that are required for successful learning. Too often we have not been clear about what we mean by progression. Because of this, and because of some of the issues raised by the Experiences and Outcomes, I have begun to think in terms of “big learning pathways”. These are essentially the skills on which all subjects make demands and to which all subjects can make a contribution. Literacy and numeracy are obvious examples, but others might be recall, understanding, creating, evaluation or analysis. They are the important skills for learning and the basis for progression. They are also a means to deal with aspects of the Experiences and Outcomes that reflect them. It may be easier in some areas of the curriculum to think about the skills and the evidence that would show progress, rather than get caught up in breaking the Es &Os down into smaller steps. The worry with that approach is that teachers become overburdened with attainment targets and finish up with a reinvention of 5-14 rather than a real chance for a less prescriptive curriculum that liberates their professionalism.
We have discussed the elements of moderation and the need to assure teachers’ judgements earlier in this article and, to some extent, we have touched on the issue of validity. This is a critical issue for Curriculum for Excellence. We need assessments both internally and externally which provide evidence about the important elements that we set out to teach. Too often, we have been confronted by assessment that narrows the curriculum and encourages teachers to take a “coaching” approach where they “teach to the test”, rather than educate.
There are simple, straightforward ways of developing this sort of assessment and, hopefully, the fourth new element of BtC 5, the National Assessment resource, will assist in this. The NAR is still at an early stage of development and we need to make sure that we support it so that it grows into a resource that we value.
If it does, it will take us further in developing a curriculum that better allows us to meet the needs of learners and an assessment system that lets us see more clearly whether or now we are achieving that.