New tests boost grades

21st November 2008 at 00:00
Continuing professional development for teachers has directly benefited pupils in the north, as Henry Hepburn reports

Highland pupils have improved their exam performance - even though much of their preparation was based on formative assessment.

Yet teachers, despite being impressed with the impact, remain unconvinced that pupils will be given credit when it comes to exams.

Highland Council has been involved in the Assessment is for Learning programme since its inception in 2001, and its innovative "Highland Journey", which began in 2004, has seen teachers attempting to balance the demands of constant summative assessment with teaching which gives priority to deep, pupil-centred learning. With the help of outside experts, the authority set up an ambitious programme of continuing professional development which won high praise from teachers and attracted much interest from other parts of the country.

Researchers from Glasgow and Strathclyde universities, working on behalf of the Scottish Qualifications Authority, assessed the impact of changing practice among 10 secondary teachers. The study states that "all the teachers had found ways to reconcile tensions in their use of assessment for formative and summative purposes within their high-stakes assessment classes".

Teachers had managed this, for the most part, by using tasks and materials, designed for summative purposes, in formative ways.

Peer and self-assessment, for example, were used for looking at the outcome of tests and exams. Pupils were more in charge of their learning, and metacognition (thinking about thinking) was encouraged.

The setting up of teacher networks from different schools, mainly subject specialists, was "hugely influential" in changing practice.

Teachers, however, were uneasy about the implications of the new methods for exam performance. "They had confidence in the innovative pedagogies they had used and in their pupils' abilities," the report noted. "They were unsure whether the current examination system would recognise pupils' development as learners during the year's work. Thus, they were reluctant to predict whether the pupils would be successful in the final examinations."

However, there was evidence of improvement in pupils' performance in Higher and Standard grade exams, which was "potentially an extremely important finding". But the report stressed the small scale of the study and recommended longer-term research into the impact on grades.

Moves toward formative assessment were less problematic among younger children but, as they got older, teachers would worry about the impact on exam performance.

Highland teachers of upper secondary classes were "entirely committed" to work which promoted dialogue and collaborative tasks in pairs and small groups, but were concerned about time.

The final exam was still the target, "the raison d'etre of their day-to-day work", but the burden of summative assessment throughout S4 to S6 was "disproportionate"; no one argued the current position was desirable.

"The tension between assessment for formative and summative purposes was a real one," the researchers stated. "The fact that the teachers found ingenious way of resolving it did not diminish the reality."

The researchers call for a national review to investigate summative assessment impact, including small-scale studies on new approaches, which would meet the requirements of the SQA and satisfy the broader approach to achievement taken by A Curriculum for Excellence.

Flexible route to headship complements, not competes with, that of the SQH

The Scottish Government has published an evaluation report on its "flexible routes to headship" pilot programme, carried out by researchers from Glasgow and Cambridge universities.

It made 21 recommendations, most of them aimed at strengthening the development role of the programme. One of the most significant was that both the flexible programme and the more conventional Scottish Qualification for Headship should be removed from government control and come under the regulation of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, alongside developments such as the chartered teacher programme.

The centrepiece of the flexible approach is the coaching given to aspiring, and some practising, headteachers by a group of coaches. The coaching experiences of those taking part in the pilot provided "significant lessons and insights for this globally-emerging approach to school leader development", the report stated.

It also found that the flexible route might be more usefully targeted at prospective leaders much earlier in their careers. The report backed a "mixed economy" in which the flexible route to headship complemented the SQH, rather than competed with it.

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