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Exams and learning need not be in conflict

Summative assessment for exams can be transformed into "formative learning" if teachers are ingenious, claims the Scottish Qualifications Authority in a landmark report.

Researchers from Glasgow and Strathclyde universities found pupils' exam performance had improved, and called for a larger study exploring the impact on grades in more detail. Not every teacher believed it was possible to marry formative methods to the current testing system's demands, and the researchers called for small-scale case studies to weigh up alternative approaches to summative assessment.

They examined how 10 teachers in Highland Council - one of the most enthusiastic backers of Assessment is for Learning since its 2001 inception - used innovative approaches while preparing pupils for exams, mostly Highers.

Kevin Logan, the development officer behind the Highland Journey from 2004-09, said: "We're very pleased. We thought the model was robust, but it had to be shown to work in the high-stakes setting of exams in upper secondary. We still have a long way to go, but it's encouraging to see the model can work effectively to bring about the four capacities and raise achievement."

While there has been much research exposing conflict between formative approaches and exams, this is believed to be the first detailed Scottish study looking at how it might be overcome. It suggests that, far from upper secondary's heavy burden of exams and tests hampering ACfE, these might be starting points for innovative teaching.

The researchers found the teachers were not "rebels" or "iconoclasts" taking risks with pupils' short-term futures, but "pragmatists" who hoped to encourage deeper learning while satisfying examiners' demands. They believe that exam performance can improve, using formative assessment, because teachers were using the demands of the external, high-stakes exams "as a vehicle to give pupils responsibility for their own learning".

"Teacher 2" got S5 pupils to write about maths past papers - without using any maths. Instead, they explained their methods for tackling questions. The teacher said the process was "beneficial", although pupils found it "very strange at first".

Time was a constant worry, shared by the other nine teachers, but Teacher 2 was determined to persevere with unconventional methods. Following classroom tests, groups of pupils looked at their answers - before the teacher - and came up with marking schemes; then they came together to create a definitive scheme. "So, in effect, I see the blank pieces of paper I put out for a test, and the next time I handle those papers is when they come back to me marked and graded by the pupils," the teacher said.

"Teacher 7", while preparing pupils studying French to write an essay, asked them to plan what they would do and to gather vocabulary. Pairs of pupils examined what they had in common, and what could be discarded. Then they convened to write one essay and compared with a checklist of examiners' expectations.

The teacher and pupils marked the essay independently, and most times came up with the same grade. Pupils then had to write essays under test conditions, and almost always at the same level of work.

Since 2004, groups of Highland teachers have worked with researchers and leading thinkers to explore ACfE capacities in detail and raise achievement, a process known as the Highland Journey.

For the report, and a paper by King's College London's Paul Black on other aspects of the Highland Journey, visit: www.sqa.org.uksqa38001.html

Information on Highland model: www.hvlc.org.ukaceaiflhighlandmodel.htm.

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