So, we should all breathe a sigh of relief and think carefully about how we are currently using assessment in school
If you currently work in a school in Wales, you know that as soon as the word assessment is mentioned the atmosphere changes, shoulders tighten, brows furrow, it’s as if a cloud has descended. This isn’t because teachers don’t value the process of finding out where their pupils are, it is due to the accountability pressure that every school faces in relation to their Teacher Assessment Levels, national test scores and their position within their family of schools. The good news is, that Successful Futures by Professor Donaldson and the recommendations, fully accepted by Welsh Government, make it clear that assessment for learning should not be directly linked to school accountability.
So, we should all breathe a sigh of relief and think carefully about how we are currently using assessment in school and how our assessment practices and processes can be shaped over the next four years to reflect the principles and recommendations contained within Successful Futures.
One very clear point made in the original review document and reiterated by the recommendations of the Pioneer School Strategic Design Group for Assessment and Progression recently, is the importance of formative assessment. The review states that formative assessment must complement the learning process rather than narrowing the curriculum. It should provide clear information on learning and teaching in schools and should avoid reducing children’s progression to numbers and levels. This is where standardised assessments can have enormous value to schools, teachers and most importantly learners.
For schools, utilising the diagnostic information provided with standardised assessments allows them not only to accurately identify exactly which skill or skills pupils are struggling with the most, but exactly what that pupil’s current ability is. A comparison can be made with all other pupils of the same age who have taken the same test across the nation in order to identify in relation to their peers who is way ahead and who is struggling to keep up. Wales’ new curriculum will be skill based. Teachers need to have the means to accurately identify a starting point for each child for these skills, but also measure how effective current teaching strategies are at supporting pupils to progress these skills. This is exactly what a focussed and well informed use of standardised assessments allows.
Let’s look at an example to clarify exactly how this would work in practice. A primary school in Wales, let’s call it Ysgol A, uses a standardised assessment at the beginning of each year to assess pupils’ reading skills. The assessment tests the pupils’ decoding skills and their comprehension skills. The test is marked externally and the school is provided with a reading age for each pupil as well as data on pupils’ performance against reading skills linked directly with skills in the Literacy Framework. This data is then triangulated with the results of non-verbal assessments.
Ysgol A uses the assessment information to do two things. The first is to identify how well each child is performing in relation to a national standard, and groups of high performers and low performers are identified. Their second step, which aligns directly with the direction of the new Curriculum for Wales, is for each of those groups to look carefully at their skill performance and identify some priority skills that need further development. This is where the class teacher takes control of the data. By linking reading proficiency with non-verbal reasoning the potential of each child is also quantified. By sharing information on the spread of pupil ability and potential within school as well as the skill proficiency data, teachers are empowered to use standardised assessments formatively, and have a direct impact on planning and pupil outcomes.
As Estyn commented in its recent Annual Report; “In high-performing schools, leaders ensure that practitioners have the skills to make intelligent use of data…..[and] leaders use data analysis to underpin and evaluate school development priorities.” The key as we move towards a new curriculum for Wales is using standardised tests to pinpoint the gaps in skill progression and using that information to ensure every child becomes, in Donaldson’s words “An ambitious, confident learner.”
By Finola Wilson, Director, Impact Wales. Follow Finola at @ImpactWales