Right balance for effective learners

18th December 2009 at 00:00

The recent discussions about assessment in Curriculum for Excellence have been worrying.

There has been so much emphasis on assessment in recent years, particularly on Assessment is for Learning, that there should have been much less anxiety about it. There appears to have been a queue of people condemning the lack of detail in recent Government statements. One wonders whether the key tenets of Assessment is for Learning have really been grasped. Indeed, it calls into question whether the excellent assessment document, from the 5-14 programme, had ever been read.

Both of these stress the role of assessment in supporting learning. They make clear that the fundamental purpose of assessment is to allow the learner, those who support her or him and those who are interested in the learner's progress to judge how much has been learned and to plan their next steps.

Good assessment is based on the curriculum. It tests all the skills that have formed part of the course. It allows the learner the chance to display the knowledge they have. It may lead to qualifications, but not always. It must consistently allow helpful information for the student and the teacher so that gaps can be filled and strengths developed.

We already have a significant amount of the information that we need for assessment in Curriculum for Excellence through the experiences and outcomes. These set out the pathways that we expect learners to pursue. They provide a sound basis for curriculum planning. They can be made easier to deal with by identifying what makes a difference between the earliest level of performance and the most sophisticated. Being clear about the differentiating factors allows us to make decisions about the means of assessment.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority has made a public commitment that the assessments, which they use as a basis for qualifications, will be valid. The task, then, is to look carefully at the experiences and outcomes for level four and ask candidates to demonstrate their achievements in relation to these.

The SQA has much greater responsibility to ensure that their assessments are reliable as well as valid. That apart, their staff, most of them teachers released for SQA work, are undertaking the same sort of work as teachers in schools.

We are working with the same model for assessment that was advocated in the 5-14 document:

- decide what it is that we want students to learn;

- plan how we will enable that learning;

- work out how students can demonstrate whether or not they have been successful in that learning;

- give them that opportunity;

- offer feedback to them on their success and advice on how they can improve;

- report the information gained to those interested in their progress;

- plan the next stage in learning for pupils;

- reflect on how we might improve the learning experience for the next group of students.

This is no sea change in assessment. It is eminently possible to identify programmes of study currently being used in schools and translate them, with relatively minor changes, to match the demands of CfE. As has been argued on many occasions, it is the "how" rather than the "what" of teaching that will bring improvement.

Despite reservations expressed, the experiences and outcomes represent a genuine bid to declutter the curriculum, rather than reinvent it. They have been subject to extensive consultation and been revised as a result of that. They should now belong to the profession and be deployed by us to support meaningful assessment.

We should also have the capacity to do this. The number of staff who attended the recent Tapestry conference impressed me. I suspect that one of the best-received contributions came from Dylan Wiliam. His work, and that of his colleagues through the Inside the Black Box series, have been hugely influential in Scotland. Thanks to that, he is now in a position to talk about the development of practice here that can take Assessment is for Learning forward. We are getting better at assessment.

What we need to do is to get better at agreeing standards. It is a huge concern that we still place far greater reliance on standardised tests than on the evidence and information provided by our colleagues. This is not to argue that there is no place for standardised assessment. That is another debate. What is worrying is that we have not built in greater reliability to our internal, formative assessments over 30 years after the Bullock report set that as a priority.

Curriculum for Excellence has taken that very seriously and has set out an unparalleled commitment to moderation. The process will deliver more than standardisation: it will offer genuine and meaningful staff development; it will be experiential learning alongside peers; it will be task-focused and deliver improvement, supported by the development of the National Assessment Resource, which will offer far better exemplification than anything that we have had up to now.

Crucially, it will have further support from Glow, which should make possible the kind of exchange between practitioners that we need to make this work.

There is widespread consensus that we need to educate our young people to be more effective learners in the challenging 21st century. If that is the case, we need to be changing the way we assess in any case. Curriculum for Excellence seems to me to be giving us the tools to do that, even at this stage. It is up to us to take advantage of it.

David Cameron is the former president of the Association of Directors of Education and a member of the Curriculum for Excellence board.

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