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Transforming student outcomes through enriched teacher understanding of assessment principles and practice
Author: Jo Knight
In her case study, Jo discusses the project her school is undertaking to increase the knowledge and understanding of the principles and practice of assessment throughout their teaching cohort, emphasising the importance such understanding has on student outcomes.
This case study was conducted within a Catholic primary school in the Northern Territory which caters for students from Transition to Year 6. An Early Learning Centre for children aged 2 ½ years to preschool age is also an integral part of the school.
The August 2017 census data showed an enrolment of 247 students. The school's student population is composed of 12 or more different cultural backgrounds. It operates 10 classrooms in predominantly multi-age structures – a Transition class, a Transition/Year 1 class, three Year 1 and 2 classes, three Year 3 and 4 classes and two Year 5 and 6 classes.
The school also offers specialised Music, Indonesian and Physical Education classes. Technology is a very important part of this school's everyday practice. Each staff member, and students from Year 1 to Year 6 has their own Google Drive account.
Year level collaborative planning is considered extremely important and as such clever administrative processes are utilised to allow year level planning teams to meet every week for their three hour non-face-to-face time. 'This way of working means that [the classroom teachers and specialist teachers] become 'more than the sums of our parts'; in other words when we cooperate, our professional practices are enhanced beyond what we offer individually' (Victorian State Government, n.d.).
In planning sessions, teachers are encouraged to focus on the competencies and skills of the children in their class, plan effectively to enhance learning and build relationships with their families to deliver high quality programs. Over the past couple of years many of the school's teachers have become more aware of the need to use and analyse formative assessment rather than simply relying on summative assessment.
The school prides itself on being able to cater for the social, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of all members of its community. Educating the whole person is a huge goal for our school. The mission of teaching to the whole person encompasses a wide range of pedagogical approaches, including increasing awareness of different learning styles; encouraging students to relate academic material to their lives outside the classroom; facilitating reflective thinking and writing; taking into account the diversity of student ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds and addressing the affective and emotional dimensions of student learning.
Alongside the motto 'Strong in Faith' is the shared vision of opportunities for all. Teachers within the school strive to provide sequences of learning which cater for a variety of abilities and personalities.
The focus group for this case study in 2017 will predominantly be the Year 3 and 4 teaching and student cohort. This year level has been chosen as it is the planning team I currently teach on a 0.4FTE basis. I share classroom teaching commitments with a colleague who also participated in the Institute of Educational Assessors' Certified Educational Assessors (CEA) course. My colleague and I are both in leadership positions at the school – myself as Deputy Principal and my co teacher as Teaching and Learning school coordinator. Holding these roles in our school we felt it was important to take the lead and to direct and support changes in the way our teachers plan, teach and then assess in order to fully maximise all learning opportunities for our students. However, all classroom teachers will participate in the professional learning sessions and conversations about assessment. The level to which the other planning teams will engage in using this assessment knowledge will be a team decision. All planning teams will be expected to adopt the shared practices in 2018.
Prior to beginning our intensive focus on the area of assessment with the whole primary staff, it was clear that the main assessment being used across the school was in summative form. Conversations with pedagogues and observations of teacher practice in all classrooms showed a reliance upon summative evaluations of student learning. Teachers felt that the 'goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some standard or benchmark' (Eberly Center 2016).
The greatest examples of gauging student learning in summative form was through the use of a test at the conclusion of a mathematics unit, analysing a reader's understanding by benchmarking using a PM or Fountas and Pinnell level prior to reporting time or marking a paper or project against a rubric at the conclusion of an inquiry topic. Some teachers were focusing on providing specific feedback to their students but were questioning its effectiveness and influence on the students' learning.
Over the course of 12 professional learning team meetings, an action plan was discussed and established. It was clear that teachers desired to develop their understanding of assessment in terms of purpose and language of assessment, types of assessment and devising units of work with a strong emphasis on assessment, particularly formative.
The importance of building capacity in the area of assessment among our staff, and then ultimately in our students, became a primary goal. The CEA course modules used to form the basis of these sessions were Principles and Language of Assessment, Purpose and Design, and Feedback and Data.
During the initial meetings, ideas and thoughts were discussed in order to construct a shared philosophy about assessment and its role within the school context. The importance of validity, reliability, accessibility and cognitive demand was considered when teachers analysed and evaluated previously written and used assessment tasks. Teachers discussed the fact that 'validity and reliability of assessment methods are considered the two most important characteristics of a well-designed assessment procedure' (EdCaN 2018).
In follow up sessions, teachers were asked to become more aware of the critical need to use the ACARA Achievement Standards to their fullest potential. Teachers broke these standards down into simple clear language identifying the constructs within. Pedagogues considered the most effective ways to allow students to demonstrate their learning in order to ensure overall alignment between what the students were being asked to do and what they were being judged against. 'Assessment is a central feature of teaching and the curriculum. It powerfully frames how students learn and what students achieve' (Victoria University 2018).
Once the teachers had taught a sequence of lessons and had delivered the specifically designed assessment tasks, the focus of the professional learning team meetings moved to the importance of considering the use of judgment and bias in assessment building. Using a Google document to record findings, teachers used a variety of rubrics to explore the important elements of an effective rubric. Susan Brookhart's description of an effective rubric was used as the ideal; ' effective rubrics show students how they will know to what extent their performance passes muster on each criterion of importance, and if used formatively can also show students what their next steps should be to enhance the quality of their performance' (Brookhart, n.d.).
Teachers were then keen to explore the use of feedback and using data effectively for the next few professional learning sessions. Feedback was an area that some of our teachers had been previously working on in their own classroom settings but unifiably felt more discussion and learning was still valuable. Teachers were given the task of crafting feedback for their students in order to enhance metacognition. Teachers were provided readings to provide further knowledge about the processes and strategies to promote metacognition with the students. 'The main objectives of feedback are to: justify to students how their mark or grade was derived, identify and reward specific qualities in student work, guide students on what steps to take to improve, motivate them to act on their assessment, develop their capability to monitor, evaluate and regulate their own learning' (Nicol, 2010).
With the guidance provided by our school's Data Informed Practitioner, a great deal of time was spent on identifying students' strengths and misconceptions in the areas of reading, spelling and mathematics. Hattie's research on the very positive effect size of providing valid feedback was reiterated. Hattie's claims that learning becomes visible when teachers are also learners, helping students to become their own teachers (through metacognitive strategies, feedback and reciprocal teaching (Hattie, 2009). Feedback has a significant impact on learning; it has been described as 'the most powerful single moderator that enhances achievement' (Hattie 1999, p 9).
In the final two meetings, staff were provided with time to talk within their planning teams, and then to address the whole staff, to discuss the growth in their understanding of assessment. Teachers were asked to provide examples of how their thinking about, and practice of, assessment processes had changed. The potential impact of these changes were discussed.
In the first professional learning conversations, staff demonstrated minimal, or vastly different understandings of how quality assessment designs should be constructed. Overall, planning teams displayed a huge reliance on obtaining pre-made assessment designs which had either been used in previous years or online. If changes were made to these prepared models of assessment, they were very minimal; for example, change of date, some specifics words altered.
In one instance, a planning team consisting of experienced upper primary teachers were not regularly referring to the Australian Curriculum due to their belief in their own practice. The teachers seemed to feel it was not necessary for them to refer to the documents for direct guidance on curriculum outcomes.
Teachers also mentioned that due to time constraints, teaching sequences were often being fully planned before pre-assessment of the students. In many contexts the student's prior knowledge was not discovered until the teaching sequence was well underway. As such, too often, content that did not need to be covered had been and other areas which would have been beneficial to the students' learning were not taught in enough depth.
Even for those planning teams who were using pre-assessment models it was found that little, if any formative assessment, was being undertaken during the unit of work in order to guide the remainder of the teaching sequence. It was often not discovered that students were underachieving or missing out on relevant teaching until the summative assessment was delivered. Often the summative assessment task was made just before delivery rather than being developed at the very beginning of the unit's planning phase.
The one consistency that was evident across the board was the teachers' recognition that there needed to be a whole school approach to teaching and learning and assessment and feedback. Teachers knew the elements of assessment and feedback were intended to be interwoven into the teaching and learning cycle, but were needing to fill their knowledge void.
Teachers were unified in their idea that students of today needed to have skills beyond basic reading, writing and mathematical skills; students need to be able to think critically, to analyse and to make meaningful decisions about their learning. Teachers understood assessment to be a means of asking: are we teaching what we think we are teaching?, are students learning what they are supposed to be learning?, is there a way to teach the subject better, thereby promoting better learning?.
At the conclusion of the professional learning team meetings, it was clear to see how far many of our teachers had progressed in their beliefs and actions in assessment. Teachers were asked to self-reflect upon their learning and discuss changes in their teaching and methods of assessment.
Teachers learnt that students must have a clear understanding of what is valued and what is being assessed. The staff found using WALT and WILF3 in explicit learning goals, along with formative assessment, beneficial to providing a differentiated curriculum. The 'main goal of formative assessment is to ensure that the strengths and challenges of each learner are identified and acted upon' (Everton Park State School, 2018).
This process also reinforced to the teachers the importance of shared and collaborative planning time. Over the past five years, our school has shown a strong commitment to enabling collaborative planning to occur, particularly with the adoption of a shared Google Drive and linked planning sessions. Our staff concur with Carole Cooper and Julie Boyd who state 'the focus of the collaborative learning community is learning - learning where students are actively demonstrating their understanding, rather than students passing written tests as the sole sign of knowing' (Cooper and Boyd, 1994).
An area which teachers did progress, but continue to find difficult, is designing tasks which are reliable and valid as well as cognitively demanding. A key focus for many of the teachers was to ensure all academic levels were being catered for in all learning tasks and assessment activities. Teachers discussed the importance of creating assessments that can measure how well each student understands the tested content, and that the teacher did indeed teach this content, and therefore contributed to the child's assessed growth (Shillingburg, 2016). Popham (2014) talks about the need to remember that test design is a fluid process that needs to be regularly revised and updated to maintain validity and reliability.
One of the most noticeable changes in teacher habits was a greater emphasis on using the ACARA Achievement Standards. Teachers found that looking closely at these documents and truly understanding how they work assisted their planning teams in initial planning and programming of teaching and learning activities. As it states in these documents; 'they provide teachers with a statement of learning expected of students at the end of a year or band of years, and assist in developing teaching and learning programs' (ACARA, n.d.).
This knowledge enabled teachers to provide more effective feedback than was previously used. At first, teachers struggled to deliver feedback which was deemed achievable. Unachievable feedback simply resulted in a demotivating effect on the student. The feedback originally provided often lacked in differentiation from learner to learner. As more practice was undertaken, teachers' knowledge of their students' zone of proximal development increased; knowing where they are at and what they need to know to get to the next step. Teachers showed more and more in their practice that feedback is about improving on, not just measuring student progress (Swaffield, 2011).
Authentic assessment, as advocated by Gary Wiggins (2002), was discussed widely by the teachers. By considering the assessment tasks before teaching the learning cycle, teachers were able to guide their learners on a more effective pathway to success. Earl (2003) contends that assessment is an essential component of teaching and learning. Without an effective assessment program it is impossible to know whether students have learned, whether teaching has been effective, or how to best address student learning needs.
As a result of our professional learning sessions as a whole staff, the following processes have been adopted across the T-6 planning teams:
- Focus on students as learners
- Actively engage students in the learning and assessment tasks - this includes understanding the assessment tasks, purposes and processes
- Ensure assessment tasks are developmental throughout the course, moving from simple and short to complex and longer over time; building capacity through assessment
- Include an early assessment task in each unit so that students can gauge their progress
- Take into account student diversity when designing assessment tasks and practices, so that individual students are not disadvantaged
- Design authentic and realistic assessment tasks that prepare students for future learning
- Ensure that assessment tasks are clearly communicated to students so that they have a good understanding of what is expected
- Refresh assessment tasks over time
- Use effective feedback which is constructive (highlighting both strengths and weaknesses), timely (providing feedback while the assessed work is still fresh in a student's mind), and meaningful (targeting individual needs and linking to specific assessment criteria)
These processes will be regularly reviewed and adapted as teachers become more proficient in developing effective assessment and feedback models.
Allowing the teaching staff time to deepen and widen their understanding of how assessment is a key part of teaching and learning has been extremely worthwhile. The professional readings and opportunities for dialogue have been very beneficial for capacity building within the pedagogues.
It is evident that this is still the beginning phase of the learning. More time for further learning and reflection still needs to be a focus for our staff over the course of this coming year, and beyond. Our school is fortunate to have some members of our core team working with Dylan Wiliam in the first half of the year. The carry on effect from the information, processes and strategies from his notable work will be highly advantageous at this stage of the process.
There has been an immediate positive effect in teacher planning. Many teachers now seem more confident to take the lead on developing the assessment element of the teaching and learning process and as such, students are also beginning to see the benefits. Feedback to students has been a focus for many of the teachers and it has been pleasing to see how the collegiality of the teachers has improved.
In completing the Certified Educational Assessors (CEA) course, the CEA participants have used the knowledge gained in the module content to become more aware of the strategies and processes which can be implemented in order to best allow assessment and feedback to effectively fit in with teaching and learning.
The strengths of the CEA have been to provide a structured time to allow all staff to think reflectively on their teaching and to identify areas for improvement or further capacity building. 'Peer-to-peer exchange is an essential characteristic of professional dialogue and can enhance the quality of reflective practice' (Simoncini et al 2014, p 29). Encouraging and leading professional dialogue has also been a strength. In fact, 'dialogue coupled with reflection and moved to action creates the conditions for transformative learning' (Donovan, Meyer & Fitzgerald, 2008, p 11).
3 Pedagogical framework strategy: We Are Learning To… (WALT), What I’m Looking For… (WILF)
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