Assessing assessment: teachers' views revealed

14th September 2012 at 01:00
A government-commissioned study has uncovered widespread lack of confidence and uncertainty when it comes to evaluations of pupils' work under CfE. But it's not all bad news, as Elizabeth Buie reports

Exactly how confident are teachers today in their assessment of pupils' work under Curriculum for Excellence? Are they themselves "developing", "consolidating" or "secure" in their abilities?

A major research report by a team from the University of Glasgow, commissioned by the Scottish government and published last month, found teachers beset by uncertainty and lacking in confidence about how to make level judgements. Some were still using 5-14 levels as benchmarks for assessing CfE levels, it said.

The report points to much that is positive (see case study below) but makes it clear that success will not be guaranteed unless protected time is found in the teacher's timetable for high-quality professional dialogue on moderation and "sharing the standard".

This kind of professional interaction is crucial, warns the team led by Professor Louise Hayward, which will discuss its findings at next week's Scottish Learning Festival. It will mean that "time spent on other activities will be reduced or the activities will no longer take place".

The concern expressed by heads, classroom teachers and their unions, is that protected time requires supply cover and that is not only hard to come by, but hard to pay for.

EIS general secretary Larry Flanagan insists that the government must resource moderation and professional dialogue on an ongoing basis for all teachers.

The AHDS primary heads' union is pressing the government and Education Scotland to fund a scheme that would allow the "dead keen" early adopter teachers to be released to carry out such moderation work with others of similar thinking.

The report also makes it clear that time for assessment needs to be a permanent fixture in school life: "While there was valuable current provision in each local authority for planning and moderation meetings, this was probably insufficient to address the need for teachers to discuss curriculum planning, pedagogy and assessment standards in depth, even in a small number of aspects of school work, let alone across the whole curriculum. Current practice represents the early stages in a process that will take time to develop."

More national definition, explication and exemplification of standards are needed, according to the report, although Education Scotland says it is meeting this challenge.

Assessment has pride of place in this year's CfE implementation plan, Norman Emerson, the agency's assistant director and assessment expert, has assured TESS. There are assessment coordinators in every one of Scotland's 32 authorities and the government has committed pound;3.7 million to help teachers gain confidence in coming to an understanding of standards.

Over and above that, Education Scotland has an Innovation Fund that allows authorities to bid for extra money for innovative practice, such as using ICT to enable professional discussion.

"The main drive we are looking at is inter-authority working - bringing authorities and teachers together across boundaries to develop that consistency and understanding of standards nationally, which is going to be an increasingly important feature of our work for the coming year," he said.

While the research team finds teachers sceptical of the value of the National Assessment Resource and critical of its navigability and accessibility via Glow, Mr Emerson maintains there has been considerable progress since these soundings were taken almost two years ago.

Education Scotland is to publish a new stream of work, "Assessing progress and achievement", by December. This, he believes, will provide further clarity in terms of understanding standards.

Irene Matier, a past president of the AHDS who has been leading its CPD sessions on assessment, moderation and profiling, is unconvinced of the value of the NAR. She cites email alerts about new assessment materials failing to arrive in heads' inboxes and complains of difficulties in locating specific NAR materials.

Opponents of standardised testing where it is used in isolation for assessment will find succour in the report's finding that "standardised tests do not provide valid information related to CfE".

The report itself talks about teachers using a range of evidence to deliver "best fit" and warns that "levels are meaningful only if they are related to a body of evidence of learning and cannot be assigned to individual pieces of work".

This statement is welcomed by Ronnie Summers, convener of School Leaders Scotland's education committee, who agrees that "you cannot make a summative judgement of a pupil's level based on a single piece of evidence - but to a `body of work'."

The report issues a further warning: that "developing exemplification representing the concepts of `developing, consolidating and secure' should be avoided as it would in effect create separate sub-levels and risk labelling pupils, with consequent constraint of breadth and challenge in the learning of those working at the `lower' sub-levels".

For a culture used to reporting attainment of levels A-F under 5-14 on an annual basis, there is a further challenge - that schools should report on CfE levels "only at the end of stages of school associated with likely achievement of a level by most pupils - P4, P7 and at the point of moving from broad general education into the senior phase".

That would require a significant change of mindset relating to school reports on the part of parents and teachers, but would be feasible.

Policymakers should, says the report, "discourage too frequent use of levels judgements for tracking individual pupils' progress (on the grounds of the lack of validity when levels judgements are made on the basis of only small amounts of curricular coverage and pupil work)".

The original focus of the University of Glasgow report was assessment at the stage where pupils move from P7 to S1. However, it became clear to the researchers that "the issues applied more generally to any points of transition - as a child moved from one primary or secondary class to another or from one school to another".

As such, the issues it addresses are central to every teacher in Scotland. Indeed, if its analysis is correct - and there have been few, if any, dissenters - it could close the gap between the aspirations of Curriculum for Excellence and their realisation.

But that cannot happen overnight - and time is in short supply.

Mr Summers speaks for the secondary sector when he says: "The time the report's authors are looking for on this will not be easily found - secondary staff in the last six months will have been preparing work for the final year of broad general education; reviewing the new SQA qualifications, reporting on S1-2 in terms of the new experiences and outcomes; and should also have been reviewing the success of their S1-2 courses.

"That's a lot of demands on staff and a lot of demands for senior management in managing staff meetings."

Assessment at Transition Report 2012, University of Glasgow School of Education. Research team: Professor Louise Hayward, Professor Ian Menter, Professor Vivienne Baumfield, Professor Richard Daugherty, Nasrin Akhtar, Dr Lesley Doyle, De Dely Elliot, Dr Moira Hulme, Carolyn Hutchinson, George MacBride, Dr Margaret McCulloch, Dr Fiona Patrick, Ernie Spencer, Dr Georgina Wardle, Harry Blee and Liz Arthur.


The 124-page report, which examined international evidence, contained a literature review and studied practice in four local authorities - North Ayrshire, North Lanarkshire, West Dunbartonshire and the Western Isles - made some key statements:

- Clear understanding of what matters in the curriculum is the basis of establishing how much and how well pupils are learning and have learned, and for planning further learning;

- Thinking and discussion about assessment should be embedded in planning overall learning and teaching;

- There should be (continued) provision of guidance on and exemplification of ways in which the statements of experiences and outcomes can be used to inform these processes;

- Purposeful meetings of primary and secondary colleagues are essential, informed if possible by time spent in one another's classrooms. These meetings need to be a permanent part of professional life.

- Building high-quality professional judgement is crucial to the success of CfE, which promotes a range of learning that no external examination system could assess alone.

- Evidence should be based on a range of well-designed tasks;

- Learners should be involved in the process of sharing information on learning and assessment;

- Intensive moderation is a key component in building trust in teachers' professional judgements, both within and beyond the profession, and needs to be a structured process.


Computer games using Kodu software were the vehicle chosen by the Clydebank High cluster in West Dunbartonshire for a council-supported "enhanced transition" initiative.

The school has eight associated primaries - Carleith, Clydemuir, Edinbarnet, Gavinburn, Goldenhill, Kilbowie, Linnvale and Whitecrook - and the project, which started two years ago, involved senior management, P7 and secondary teachers in the English, maths, computer science and science departments.

A new project, following similar principles but not built around computer games, will run later this year.

All pupils in P7 used Kodu software to develop computer games. Kodu is a commercial package made freely available to schools in Scotland by Learning and Teaching Scotland (now Education Scotland). Each P7 class selected one of the games to take to the transition days in Clydebank High. Teachers were given opportunities to develop their knowledge and skills in using Kodu software.

P7 pupils, their teachers and support staff attended Clydebank High for seven days over five weeks in May and June 2011; the games they had created were the focus for learning in various departments. For example, in English, pupils wrote the "background story" to the Kodu game and its characters; in maths, number systems were done through the genre of the Kodu games; and computing looked at web-design, graphics and other areas. Rather than try and create an artificial link that did not exist, the science department did "hot and cold" science.

Other sessions focused on school values, citizenship, buddying and respecting rights, and the project finished with an exhibition for parents. The pupils were placed in the same practical classes to which they would be assigned once they entered S1.

Last year, the schools made some adjustments: the programme was compressed into five days over two weeks; the time made available for planning was increased; the maths department placed a greater emphasis on numeracy skills, describing their sessions as Kodu Olympics; a "lead teacher" was designated; there was more team-teaching and sharing of standards between primary and secondary teachers; and the project culminated in an open afternoon when P7 pupils took their parents round the high school.

Hazel McLaughlin, the depute head of Clydebank High who led the project, said: "In the first year, it was the first year of Curriculum for Excellence and everyone had real worries about sharing of standards and grading a young person's work. We didn't have the expertise. But last year, we had more expertise and everyone in English was `spot on' in their assessment of standards. We had also received criteria from West Dunbartonshire Council."

There had never been an opportunity in the past for all P7 teachers to meet together, Mrs McLaughlin observed. Primary teachers were a little hesitant about coming into secondary, she says: would they be judged by secondary teachers? Equally, some secondary teachers felt defensive about primary teachers coming into their "territory".

In the event, the pupils loved it - and the teachers were very enthusiastic, giving up time after school for meetings. This year, there are likely to be opportunities for secondary teachers to spend time in primary classes.

Siobhan Kelly, a P7 teacher at Gavinburn Primary who had previously worked as a transition teacher at Clydebank High, was more used to sharing different methodologies with secondary teachers than some of her primary colleagues.

She welcomed the opportunities afforded by the Kodu project for teachers to "really talk to one another about different expectations", and now feels more able to pick up the phone to one of the secondary teachers and ask for suggestions on, for example, how they would teach a lesson on metaphors.

Suzanne Ryan, one of Clydebank High's English teachers, commented that primary colleagues were very good at cooperative learning methods and group work. She and the other teachers in her department already did cross-marking of each other's work, but it was good to share standards with primary colleagues and she would welcome the opportunity to see what other secondary schools were doing.

Laura Vernon from Edinbarnet Primary was teaching P7 for the first time last year and was apprehensive about whether she was assessing her pupils correctly. Her fears proved to be groundless when she took part in meetings with the P7 teachers from the other seven schools to "share the standard".

All the teachers, even those with far more experience, lacked confidence that they were assessing standards correctly - until they had the chance to share thoughts.

She also talked of the benefits of following her pupils into the transition sessions. She would say to some: "You can write better than that." Had she not been present, some would have been trying to find out "what they could get away with", she believes.

Computing science teacher Carrie Lumsden commented that while an English or maths teacher could compare notes with a P7 teacher on language or numeracy standards, it was far more difficult in her subject. One primary might have 20 computers while another had only one and they might use completely different software and applications with their pupils. She would relish the chance to visit more primaries and talked with admiration of Clydemuir Primary's work on animation which she discovered almost by accident on a visit.

Both primary and secondary teachers wanted to build more opportunities for professional dialogue into their working week - whether inter- departmental, primary-secondary, across primaries or across secondaries.

But there were no clear answers to how and when this could be done. Building meetings into the normal timetable seemed to be a non-starter as teachers did not believe supply cover was either affordable or available.


- Assessment at Transition: Making it Manageable, with Louise Hayward, George MacBride and Ernie Spencer, University of Glasgow, Wednesday 19 September, 9.30am

- Transitions in Learning, with Alan Wait, schools group manager, Midlothian Education, Wednesday 19 September, 9.30am

- Sharing Practice - Developing Quality Assurance and Moderation across Authorities, with Charlette Robertson, development officer, Education Scotland, Wednesday 19 September, 12.30 and 1.45pm

- Renfrewshire Learners' Involvement in the Moderation Process, with Trevor Gray, education officer, Renfrewshire, Thursday 20 September, 10.45am

- Quality Assuring the new National Qualifications, with Kelly Milford, CfE liaison team, SQA, Thursday 20 September, 10.45am

- Science: Curriculum for Excellence: Assessing Progress in the Broad General Education in S1-S3, with Allan Rattray, headteacher, Girvan Academy, Thursday, 20 September, 10.45am

- Creative Assessment - Supporting Transitions with Janice Neilson, education officer, Renfrewshire, Thursday, 20 September, 12.00

SECC, Glasgow

Original headline: Assessing assessment: report reveals teachers' views


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