Can the path of pupils' progress stay on track?

16th September 2011 at 01:00
Assessment will loom large at next week's Scottish Learning Festival at the SECC in Glasgow. But are teachers ready to take it on?

Scotland's education professionals are sharply split on the most contentious issue in Curriculum for Excellence - assessment and qualifications. While some have "mild concerns", others view the current situation and future prospects as "a shambles".

"If there isn't a one-year delay in introducing the new qualifications, pupils are going to be seriously disadvantaged," says Larry Flanagan, education convener of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Teachers are fully engaged with delivering the experiences and outcomes from first to third year, he says. "Learning the array of new assessment methods for that will squeeze all the time available. Many schools will find it impossible to develop coursework for the new qualifications at the same time."

The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association is even more critical. "I've never been so puzzled in my life," says qualifications and assessment spokesman Alan Taylor. "There are no exemplars for assessment in first and second years - and making National 4 wholly internally assessed is wrong.

"For large numbers of children that's the highest qualification they'll get at school. And without the rigour of an externally-set exam it's going to be meaningless and valueless."

Headteachers are better pleased with progress but have their concerns too, according to Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland.

"There are huge issues around resources and staffing. They must be put in place to deliver all this," he says.

There is also a worry about assessment lower down the school: "Sharing the standard and moderation are not consistent across the country. A lot of work still needs to be done."

Without consistent standards in early secondary, qualification standards become problematic and this makes the National Assessment Resource critical, says his colleague, president Jim Thewliss. "National qualifications are predicated on prior learning and skills. So the NAR needs to produce good exemplar material that can be used across sectors and schools. We are mildly concerned about that."

But confidence is growing in the progress towards national qualifications, says Mr Cunningham. "The Scottish Qualifications Authority has consulted widely and is responding to people's comments. They have met all their deadlines so far."

Primary schools have been closely involved in Curriculum for Excellence from the start, says Pam Nesbitt, president of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland. Their concerns now centre on the continuity of assessment and tracking.

"All our good work on assessment will get lost if it becomes all about qualifications," she says. "Getting the tracking right, so transitions are seamless, is crucial.

But the whole development philosophy is flawed, argues Alan Taylor. "Who says teachers want it to be teacher-led? That's why progress is so slow. There is enormous duplication of effort around the country, as every teacher tries to work out what to assess and how.

"Teachers aren't experts in creating and assessing a new curriculum. If the inspectors don't tell us what they're looking for, how can they criticise us? Top-down works."

This goes right to the heart of the philosophy behind the new curriculum, says Mary Hoey, assistant chief inspector at Education Scotland, with responsibility for assessment and qualifications.

"The key message is that we trust teachers' judgment. Educational research internationally shows that's the right way to go," she says. "Assessment is a challenging agenda for teachers and it is causing anxiety. We recognise that. We are seeing good progress in a number of areas."

Teachers across the sectors are now engaging with the twin messages of the learner at the centre and assessment in support of learning, she says. Good practice is being built and shared.

Opening Up Learning, a new, interactive resource from The Journey to Excellence, showcases good practice in assessment. "We're sharing examples of exciting progress and providing reassuring messages about assessment," says Mrs Hoey.

The latest version of the National Assessment Resource, just launched, contains 180 exemplars from across the curriculum, as well as a new facility to allow teachers and local authorities to upload their own.

"We support practitioners in preparing exemplars, but ownership is theirs," says Norman Emerson, Education Scotland's programme director for assessment.

In its first phase the NAR's focus was literacy, numeracy, and health and well-being. The second phase, more recently uploaded, provides exemplars for all other curricular areas.

The next set of exemplars, on which work has just begun, is about recognising achievement, profiling and reporting. "These will be published by the end of December," he says.

Again there are reassuring messages for teachers. "Reporting and profiling should not be allowed to drive assessment," says Mrs Hoey. It's about improving the learning. So all aspects of assessment, including recognising achievement, profiling and reporting, have to be proportionate.

"We have a smashing example in The Journey to Excellence. It's about the learner at the centre. It's about the process. It is much less about systems and paperwork - the bureaucratic side that everybody is worried about."

The other priority this session is quality assurance and moderation, she says - a tough aspect of assessment, given the teacher-led approach that so concerns SSTA. But schools and teachers are beginning to make progress in sharing the standards, says Mr Emerson. "Quality assurance and moderation goes hand-in-hand with NAR development."

The model envisaged for moderation of assessment - and the growth of the NAR - goes like this, he says: suppose a school wants to look at standards and expectations in literacy. Initially it does so as a CPD activity, by downloading exemplars from the NAR, sharing them with teachers and getting comments and feedback.

Then the teachers use what they have just learnt to carry out similar activities with their pupils, over a period of weeks or months. The results are then shared with staff at that school and at other schools.

"Once all that moderation has taken place, we encourage authorities to upload the new exemplars to the National Assessment Resource," says Mr Emerson.

While reporting, profiling, quality assurance and moderation are priorities for this session, Education Scotland is seeing good progress in other assessment areas, it says.

Schools are making good progress with learner engagement, says Mrs Hoey. "Teachers are using the experiences and outcomes to promote engagement, and we're now seeing fantastic examples of peer and self-assessment in classes around the country."

Progress is also good in the use of a variety of approaches to assessment, she adds. "The National Assessment Resource is helping teachers think about a wider range of assessment evidence than the one-off tests some secondaries do too much of. We are now looking for evidence not just from tests, but from what children say, write, make and do."

Professional dialogue and collaboration are going well, she says. "We are increasingly seeing teachers planning and working together, across sectors as well as departments."

Teachers are bringing more breadth, challenge and application into the learning, she says. "In 5-14 there was too much of a rush to get children through the levels as fast as possible. There's a nice diagram in Building the Curriculum 5 that illustrates the three-dimensional approach to learning we are trying to promote.

"We're now looking for challenge and depth of understanding, as well as breadth - the range of things they're learning. We want young people to be able to apply their learning in different contexts, not just recall facts in the classroom. They need to be flexible. They need to be adaptable."

That wider concept of progress has an impact on planning for assessment, she says, and ties in well with the four contexts for learning - subject, inter- disciplinary, school life and personal achievement. "In the end assessment is just one part of what we are trying to do.

"We have to get the balance right among learning, teaching and assessment. If we put too much emphasis on assessment, it's the tail wagging the dog - and we've had that too often in the past."

Scottish Learning Festival

Opening up assessment, by Mary Hoey et al

21 September, 3.45pm

National Support for Quality Assurance and Moderation, by Norman Emerson

21 September, 9.30am

An Approach to Departmental Moderation, by Mary MacKinnon

22 September, 1.45pm

NAR - Our Learning Journey, by teachers from the Glasgow Gaelic School

22 September, 9.30am


Curriculum for Excellence envisages a "seamless learning journey" from age 3 to 18. But without new national qualifications the join would be visible at the end of level 4, when learners start the "senior phase" and face external assessment.

To smooth the transition, the Scottish Qualifications Authority is introducing less prescription and more personalisation and choice in the new qualifications, beginning with National 4 and National 5, which will replace Standard grades and Intermediate 1 and 2.

National 4 will be internally assessed, while at National 5 more coursework will contribute to the final grade. At present, half of Intermediate courses have some coursework. It will be a much larger proportion at National 5, says SQA.

To ensure cohesion with and progression from CfE 3-15, qualifications, from National 4 up to Advanced Higher, will contain "added value assessments", which examine the accumulation of skills (breadth), the challenge and the application of learning.

Assessment of added value will use seven methods: assignments, case studies, practical activities, performances, portfolios, projects and question paperstests.


31 August 2011

Course rationales and summaries for Access 1, 2 and 3; course specifications for Higher; and unit specifications for National 4 and 5.

October 2011

Course specifications for Access 1, 2 and 3

November 2011

Course assessment specifications for National 5 and unit specifications for Higher

December 2011

Unit specifications for Access 1, 2 and 3


National 4 and 5 will be introduced


The first new Highers


The first new Advanced Highers

When each set of documents is published, there will be a two-month feedback window for comments. After April 2012, once the final course and unit specifications have been published, SQA will provide quality-assured assessment materials and exemplars on the National Assessment Resource (NAR) to support the new qualifications. Qualifications development timeline:


There is hard evidence that trusting teachers' judgment when it comes to assessment - which is what Scotland now aims to do - leads to better learning.

Glasgow University's Professor Louise Hayward has worked on assessment nationally and internationally and is a member of the Assessment Reform Group. "Evidence shows that if you want assessment you can depend on, it's teachers in the classroom who can collect it across the whole range of the curriculum," she says.

The reason is that the purpose of assessment is to find out how well pupils are learning everything society wants them to learn - the skills, the knowledge, the four capacities. Focusing on a smaller set of things that are easy to measure doesn't assess learning over the whole curriculum. It is not doing the job it claims to do and it distorts the teaching, says Professor Hayward.

"Externally-set tests only give you information about certain things. If that's all you use, then what happens is that the curriculum becomes narrowed and teachers focus only on those areas that are assessed."

Around the world, research on effective assessment is coming to similar conclusions, she says. Teachers in schools are central. They need a deep understanding of what learning progress looks like. They have to be skilled in creating opportunities for children to learn and demonstrate their learning. They need to work with learners to help them understand what good performance is and how to get there. They need the pedagogical knowledge to support learners to take their next steps.

"There is a lot to be done in supporting teachers towards all that," says Professor Hayward.

Teacher autonomy and professionalism, better learning and assessment in the classroom, the development of knowledge, understanding and skills linked to the four capacities - all these have a strong base in the research evidence, says Professor Hayward.

"This is a sophisticated system we are in the process of building. It will require professional learning to develop high degrees of assessment literacy among teachers, parents and the wider community.

"That is the challenge if we want to give every child a better life chance - which is what Curriculum for Excellence is all about."

Assessment in schools: Fit for purpose?



Assessment methods within the English department at Grange Academy, East Ayrshire feature in both The Journey to Excellence and the National Assessment Resource. Its model for moderation has been in place since the beginning of this year, and principal teacher Mary MacKinnon has already presented it at national conferences.

"Other authorities have asked me to speak to their schools too, so I've been out and about describing our method. It's going down well and seems to be striking a chord with people."

The starting point for the Grange English model was a desire to see if "all the theory, reflection and rhetoric was getting down to jotter level". There was also a realisation that something more fundamental than simply mapping experiences and outcomes to existing courses was needed "to produce good CfE".

So Mrs MacKinnon and her colleagues went back to the curriculum's design principles - challenge and enjoyment, breadth, progression, depth, personalisation and choice, coherence and relevance - and created a moderation activity around these that could be completed in one departmental meeting.

"That's one period and it includes writing it up, which you do as you go along," says Mrs MacKinnon. "It can be with the whole department together or breaking off into two or three teachers."

The focus for each moderation meeting is one learner and just one experience and outcome. Teachers study the pupil's work and discuss and answer two or three questions for each design principle. Under Progression, for instance, there are: "How well did this learner meet the agreed success criteria?"; "What evidence is there of this learner's progression?" and "What are this learner's next steps?"

Under Depth and Breadth the questions include: "Did negotiation of and adherence to the success criteria encourage greater depth of learning?" and "Were activities designed with richer learning in mind?"

"Richer learning is an important idea," says Mrs MacKinnon. "In thinking about the switch from planning 5-14 to CfE, I didn't want my colleagues to give me week-by-week lists of which poems we were doing. I don't think that's planning the learning. It's planning the admin and photocopying."

Experience at Grange has shown that the method works well. It's a broader concept of moderation than before, since each meeting is in two halves, the first of which looks at the teacher's work - under the design principles coherence, depth and breadth, and relevance - and the second at the pupil's - under progression, challenge and enjoyment, and personalisation and choice.

Concerns that this initial focus on what the teacher was doing might make colleagues feel exposed were soon allayed - mainly because the whole approach was developed internally to "figure out our strengths and what we can do better, rather than being given to us or forced upon us".

Another concern was that moderating every experience and outcome in this way would be a monumental task, says Mrs MacKinnon. "It would be ludicrous. All the Es and Os are important or they wouldn't be there, but there are certain core skills in English that we want to focus on in this first year."

The wider interest in this moderation model arises from the fact that it is not subject-specific. Curriculum for Excellence design principles apply to every subject.

"So far it's just been the English department," says Mrs MacKinnon. "But I believe it would work just as well in French or maths, or if it was Grange English and science staff sitting down to look at literacy across the curriculum.

"It will also work just as well, I believe, with primary-secondary literacy and with subject teachers at different schools. We are talking to people now and are planning to give that a try."

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today