Learning - Importance of Assesment

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When considering the time spent in any classroom, we see that large portion of this time is spent on assessment. It is a “major contributor to raising standards in schools” (Cohen, Manion & Morrison. 2006, p.323) and also “assessment makes a difference to learning.” (Naylor, S., Keogh, B. & Goldsworthy, A. 2006. p.5) Whether the difference assessment makes is positive or negative depends on how it is used. It is also important for teachers to “devise ways of assessing and reporting which give pupils indications of what they know and can do and which keep them forward looking and optimistic” (Bryce, T., 2008b) Assessment can be divided into two main types: summative assessment and formative assessment. Summative assessment can be described as “the grading of learning that has or has not taken place” (Bryce, 2008a, p581). Meanwhile, formative assessment is linked with “supplying meaningful feedback for learning to occur, helping individuals to move forward from their current position.” (Bryce, 2008a, p581) Formative assessment has been under development for a number of years in Scottish schools and “it follows that to establish good formative assessment practices in classrooms requires that most teachers make significant changes.” (Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B. & Wiliam, D., 2004, p2) However, “teachers cannot avoid a summative role” (Black, P., 1999, p131) as they have documentation to complete including school reports to parents. Perhaps a balance should exist between the two models of assessment as in some cases “summative tests can be helpful, provided that they are based on a sound model of learning.” (Black, P., 1999, p131)

One initiative associated with formative assessment is Assessment is for Learning (AifL). This “focuses on the gap between where the learner is in their learning, and where they need to be” (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2007) and involves “any assessment for which the first priority is to serve the purpose of promoting students' learning.” (Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B. & Wiliam, D., 2004, p2) Assessment is for Learning “has concentrated upon developing the quality of formative classroom assessment throughout the country.” (Bryce, T., 2008a, p.591) and as mentioned above, teachers will need to make ‘significant changes' to achieve this. In order to make these changes, a teacher has to reflect upon what has already been tried in order to change strategies which did not work and build upon what was successful. A teacher also has to not only ask pupils questions but also ask questions of themselves, such as “To what extent do our learning and teaching approaches help pupils to become successful learners?” and “To what extent do we use pupils' responses effectively to identify what pupils understand and to help plan for future learning and teaching?” (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2008b)

Bearing this in mind, formative assessment practice was observed and evaluated whilst on placement and also tried by myself with some measure of success. In one instance, a second year science class was observed being instructed to prepare a poster in groups on “how a molecule of oxygen gets from the gases in the air to help move your big toe”. This was during the unit on body systems and the pupils had previously been taught the information required to complete the poster. At first, the pupils themselves seemed dubious as to how to go about the task as they had been given no other information with the exception of the title. However, after some discussion in the groups they seemed to come to grips with what they were being asked and set about the task with enthusiasm. The class was given two periods to complete their task and in this time they completed some truly excellent posters which were displayed with pride in the corridor.

Upon observing this class complete this task, I was surprised to see how quickly the task was comprehended by some pupils, especially since it was not made clear by the teacher from the start “what was to be learned and what success would be like.” (Bryce, T., 2008a, p592) This comprehension was quickly followed by some high quality interactions between the pupils as to how they would go about their posters, discussing exactly how the molecule of oxygen travels through the body and the processes involved. This was when I realized that though not phrased into a question, the statement the teacher of the class had asked the pupils to consider was thought provoking and required them to really reflect on their previous learning and therefore was complying with the key ideas of Assessment is For Learning. During the two period session, the class teacher, and myself, were continually circulating the groups and asking the pupils more questions on the subject, eliciting responses, giving positive feedback on the posters the pupils were creating but also highlighting areas for improvement. This I felt really boosted the pupils' confidence and enhanced their desire to do well in the task. It also incorporated the “two stars and a wish strategies” described by Bryce (2008a, p592). At the end of the activity pupils also got to evaluate each other's posters highlighting parts they liked and would use in the future. Overall, I felt that this two period session incorporated Assessment is for Learning techniques very well and is something I would use in the future in this topic.

During my own teaching practice, I tried a number of times to incorporate Assessment is for Learning into my lessons. In one lesson with a third year biology class, they were dissecting flowers in order to be able to identify the parts of the reproductive system and describe their functions. At the start of the lesson, the pupils were informed of the learning outcomes and also the success criteria so they could tell for themselves if they had been successful, therefore they were aware “what was to be learned and what success would be like.” (Bryce, T., 2008a, p592) After the practical, to reinforce the key points and also to assess what they had learned, I provided the pupils with a matching exercise where, in pairs, they had to match parts of the flower with their function. This exercise enabled pupils to collaborate with each other to get the correct results. In this case I really felt that I was using “assessment as a tool for learning.” (Naylor, S., Keogh, B. & Goldsworthy, A., 2006, p.7) Although perhaps not as seamlessly as a more experienced teacher.

Another classroom experience involved a different second year class, this time on the sound and light topic. Not being a physics specialist, it can be difficult to add interest to this topic and so a biology slant was added to a few lessons. During this the class were comparing human eyes and ears to those of selected animals and going around the class in a circuit completing tasks at each station. This was done in pairs and so interaction was taking place at each step along with problem solving, comparisons and fact finding. In the next lesson, much like the first second year class, a poster was created on one of the animals in the class circuit to inform people of the differences in this animal's eyes and ears and how they benefit the animal. Much like the first second year class, feedback was given at each stage and the pupils responded well to this. The end result achieved was due to getting the pupils involved at every stage, giving them feedback and letting the pupils identify what will help in their task.

During my school experience, good Assessment is for Learning practice was observed frequently. However, this was primarily in a few of the teachers and not across the whole department. The initiative was brought up at departmental meetings and so was in development but not to the same degree as other departments or indeed, other schools.

Assessment of learning “involves working with the range of available evidence that enables staff and the wider assessment community to check on pupils' progress.” (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2007b) This means collecting the results of summative assessment and using them to collate tables and statistics and comparing these with other schools. This practice, called local moderation, is to “ensure assessments are consistent between classes and schools.” (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2007b) The results used are valid, reliable and comparable and this is why they are utilized. Assessment of learning is also used “where ‘league tables' of overall performance are published.” (Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K., 2006, p333) This can cause problems in areas where league table position is important to some, as “teachers teach to the test” (Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K., 2006, p333) Thereby negating all other forms of assessment and learning and denying pupils fundamental experiences. In areas where high league table positions are important, inclusion is another matter which must be addressed. There is an interesting tension in this field as some schools may be unwilling to present pupils for certain exams or subjects in general due to the belief that this pupil will negatively affect their league table standings. With practices like this circulating it is clear that “schools and teachers need guidance and confidence with regard to where they should place their professional support and efforts.” (Bryce, T., 2008, p594) If different strategies for assessment and learning were in place then perhaps results would improve without the compulsion to ‘teach to the test'.

This leads on to the theory that grading pupils' work should be discouraged for much of the time as described by Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (2001). During school placement, in first and second year classes, it was observed that when pupils were given the results to any form of summative assessment, the first thing they did was compare marks with their friends and partners in the class, thereby creating a competitive atmosphere. Children achieving a poor grade are then unwilling to share their results with friends and may eventually see themselves as unable to learn. It has been shown that “pupils who come to see themselves as unable to learn usually cease to take school seriously - many of them will be disruptive within school, others will resort to truancy.” (Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2001, p3) So we find ourselves in a situation where using summative assessment for grading can have a negative effect on some pupils, but is necessary for “accountability of teachers and students to interested parties.” (Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K., 2006, p327) Is there a way in which grades can be used constructively?

On observing lower school, it could be argued that perhaps using primarily formative assessment in these year groups would be more effective. As mentioned above pupils are mainly concerned with being competitive when it comes to assessment grades and so the use of “approaches in which pupils are compared with one another” (Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2001, p4) should be discouraged in favour of providing feedback to pupils “about the particular qualities of his or her work, with advice on what he or she can do to improve.” (Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2001, p6) This strategy avoids comparisons between pupils in lower school and allows them to fully enjoy the learning experience without the competitive element. It is noted that summative assessment cannot be avoided completely in these year groups, particularly with regards to reporting and also course choices for the following years.

While observing middle and upper school, the harsh competition from lower school was not as apparent, but clearly not absent completely. With this in mind, using grades constructively from third year onwards could be beneficial as pupils are heading towards external assessments. In this case, being aware of the grade they are currently achieving in conjunction with advice on how to improve may be beneficial to these pupils. On placement, it was observed in middle and upper school classes that feedback centered solely on the grade which was achieved and very rarely mentioned ways which pupils could improve, aside from studying. This was especially apparent in the top sections for the subject, where the general consensus was that pupils just wanted their grades and could build upon them themselves. Support was made available to pupils in the form of homework clubs and supported study; however there was no specific feedback offered to individual pupils. We know that “tests and homework can be an invaluable guide to learning” (Black, P. & Wiliam, D, 2001, p8) as long as these tasks have clear, relevant learning objectives: but providing feedback as well as the grade should “give each pupil guidance on how to improve, and each must be given opportunity and help to work at the improvement.” (Black, P. & Wiliam, D., 2001, p8) It is believed that using grades in this constructive manner will be valuable to both pupils and teachers, and encourage pupils to learn effectively and well.

At present, the arrangements for certification in the upper secondary school, Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF) Levels 3 - 5, comprise of two different styles of courses: the long standing Standard Grade course and the newer Intermediate 1 and 2 courses. The SCQF number indicates “a level to show how difficult the learning is and a number of credit points which indicate the size of the qualification” (Davidson, C., 2008, p612) Using this system makes “qualifications easier to describe and understand” (Davidson, C., 2008, p612) and also “enable employers, learners and the public in general to understand the full range of Scottish qualifications and how the qualifications relate to each other.” (The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, 2003)

Standard Grade courses were introduced in the 1980's as a replacement to the O-grade. The intention behind this was to “enable all pupils, whatever their level of ability, to follow suitable courses and gain awards” (The Scottish Office, 1996) and due to the fact that pupils sit two levels of exam and that all pupils take part in the course to level, this has been achieved. The Standard Grade provides pupils with many opportunities while at school and as a result there are a number of benefits associated with them. These include: a wide range of courses on offer; examinations are completed at two levels to provide pupils with the best possible opportunity for a good grade and the inclusive nature of the courses as they provide assessment for all.

Intermediate 1 and 2 courses were introduced as part of the National Qualification (NQ) framework. They have been “designed to be as flexible as possible to meet the needs of all students.” (Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2008a) In addition to this flexibility, new courses have been added to supplement the more traditional subjects in order to meet the needs of today's workplace. These include media studies and biotechnology.

The structure and assessment of Intermediate courses differs in a number of ways from Standard Grades. To begin with, Intermediate courses are structured into three units of similar lengths whereas Standard Grades can contain any number of topics, examples being Chemistry which covers fifteen topics and Biology which covers seven topics. These topics can also be of varying lengths. In the Intermediate courses, each unit ends with a test called a NAB (National Assessment Bank). Each end of unit test must be passed in order to sit the final exam. The unit also stands alone as a module so that even if a pupil does not pass the final exam, the individual units will provide some evidence of achievement for the pupil. These units are assessed internally in schools and can be re-assessed if a pupil is not successful on the first attempt “The unit structure of Intermediate qualifications is considered to be their best feature, providing flexibility and motivation for young people.”(The Scottish Government, 2008) This unit structure also helps to provide a more streamlined transition between Intermediate and Higher as the courses are constructed on the same format.

Standard Grade operates differently in that while each topic in these courses may have an end of unit test to complete, it plays no part in whether the pupil will pass or fail the course other than providing teachers with evidence for grade predictions or appeals. Where pupils do have influence over their final mark in Standard Grade is in work submitted to the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) which is completed in class. In Science subjects, this is in the form of practical abilities which are assessed over the course; in English, a folio of written work is submitted. Work completed in class can be worked on over a period of time and revision of this can continue until both teacher and pupil are satisfied that the best possible grade has been achieved, giving ample opportunity for re-assessment of the work. This, while not playing as big a part in the award as the final exam, does have some influence on the grade awarded. This work also benefits the pupils in that while they are still being assessed, it is not under stressful exam conditions, and this may provide the environment for them to work to their best potential, fully supported by their classroom teacher.

Formative assessment is becoming more widely used in schools, however recent experience shows that this is not true universally. Observations in both Standard Grade and Intermediate 2 classes while on placement have lead me to believe that summative assessment is still the more commonly used in classes, particularly in the upper school. It could be said that “the requirements of the SQA dominate school life in the upper stages of secondary.” (Bryce, T., 2008a, p581)

While both Standard Grade and Intermediate 1 and 2 courses can be argued to be both effective and successful, it has to be considered “whether these qualifications in their current form best suit the needs of tomorrow's young people, employers and other users of qualifications.” (The Scottish Government, 2008) This is mainly due to the approaching introduction of Curriculum for Excellence into schools in the coming years and the need for a new form of assessment which will fit in with the experiences and outcomes which pupils will take part in. Standard Grade and Intermediate are useful now, however “neither of these two systems reflects the values, purposes and principles of Curriculum for Excellence.” (The Scottish Government, 2008)

One solution for the problem of having incompatible assessment methods is the introduction of a new general qualification at SCQF levels 4 and 5 to replace the outmoded Standard Grade and Intermediate qualifications. This will also benefit Scotland's assessment practices which have “developed steadily over recent years but to a point of complexity which demands simplification” (Bryce, T., 2008a, p581) However, both Standard Grade and Intermediate 1 and 2 have beneficial features which would be useful in the new assessment structure.

“The inclusive approach to certification contained in Standard Grade” (The Scottish Government, 2009) is one item which should be considered when designing the new qualification. Incorporating this assessment for all is important in designing a new qualification as inclusion is a major factor. We have to be able to “support learning and respond fairly to the differences that exist across groups while at the same time providing comparable and reliable evidence” (Darling-Hammond, L. & Falk, B., 1997, p57) The current Standard Grade operates a 3 level system with foundation, general and credit and the idea of this should be carried forward but in the form of SCQF levels 4 and 5. For pupils performing below this level, Access 3 certificates will be available. Using this system, the inclusive approach of Standard Grade is still in operation and no pupil will be restricted in any way with regards to assessment.

Another useful feature of assessment structure at present is “the unit based structure of Intermediate qualifications.” (The Scottish Government, 2009) These units provide good points for internal assessment throughout the course and awards received in these assessments give pupils something to build on for the future. Using marks from these unit assessments as part of the final awarded grade would also provide useful continual assessment instead of relying purely on the final exam.

Also referring to the Intermediate structure of assessment, the way in which they are graded would be preferable to the structure of Standard Grade marks. Using the A - D form or marking would eliminate any confusion associated with the Standard Grade 1 - 7 scheme. It would also follow the pattern currently in place for Higher and Advanced Higher, again linking the levels and allowing for an easier transition.

In subjects of a practical nature such a science, technical, art and music; more emphasis should be placed on the practical side in the assessment. A larger percentage of marks should be awarded to practical abilities as they are in the very essence of what these subjects are about. One way in which this could be possible in science could be to complete a practical abilities folio which could include an investigation where the pupils would have to design and carry out experiments and then report on them. This is something which currently operates in Advanced Higher but is felt, if used correctly, would also be beneficial at lower levels.

In the same vein, it is felt that technological advances should, where possible, be incorporated into the curriculum. There are numerous examples in the current curriculum where outdated science is still taught, such as in Standard Grade Physics which still teaches pupils about cathode ray televisions in an era where LCD and plasma televisions are the norm. In cases such as these, it is felt that perhaps pupils would display more enthusiasm in class if they could relate what they are learning to the world outside the classroom.

When dealing with assessment, it is important to understand that any decisions on changes to be made will not only affect the current pupils, but also pupils in years to come and therefore caution should be exercised when any changes come into effect.

Bibliography

* Black, P. (1999). Assessment, Learning Theories and Testing Systems. In Murphy, P. (Ed.) Learners, learning and assessment (pp. 118 - 134). London: Paul Chapman Publishing

* Black, P. & Wiliam, D. (2001) Inside the black box Retrieved 18th March 2009 from http://ngfl.northumberland.gov.uk/keystage3ictstrategy/Assessment/blackbox.pdf

* Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B. & Wiliam, D. (2004). Assessment for learning: putting it into practice Maidenhead: Open University Press

* Bryce, T. (2008a). Assessment in Scottish Schools. In Bryce, T.G.K. & Humes, W. M. (Eds.) Scottish education third edition: beyond devolution (pp. 581- 594). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

* Bryce, T. (2008b). Principles of assessment Lecture slides retrieved on 18th March 2009 from http://www.foe.strath.ac.uk/Login/FAV1-0000F728/FOV1-0000F72A/FOV1-0000F983/I000E6669?DF0=0

* Cohen, L., Manion, L. & Morrison, K. (2006). A guide to teaching practice (5th Ed) Oxon: RoutledgeFalmer

* Darling-Hammond, L. & Falk, B. (1997). Supporting teaching and learning for all students: Policies for authentic assessment systems. In Goodwin, A. L. (Ed.) Assessment for equity and inclusion: embracing all our children (pp. 51 - 76). London: Routledge

* Davidson, C. (2008). SQA Findings on Scottish Attainments. In Bryce, T.G.K. & Humes, W.M. (Eds.) Scottish education third edition: beyond devolution (pp. 608 - 626). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

* Learning and Teaching Scotland. (2007a, November 27). Assessment is for learning: introduction Retrieved March 17th 2009 from http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/assess/for/intro.asp

* Learning and Teaching Scotland. (2007b, December 10). Assessment of learning Retrieved March 18th 2009 from http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/assess/of/intro.asp

* Learning and Teaching Scotland. (2008b, August 20). Assessment for learning: high quality interactions Retrieved March 18th 2009 from http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/assess/toolkit/schools/highqualityinteractions.asp

· Learning and Teaching Scotland. (2008a, December 15). What are national qualifications? Retrieved 18th March 2009 from http://www.ltscotland.org.uk/nq/nqframework/whatarenqs.asp

* Naylor, S., Keogh, B. & Goldsworthy, A. (2006). Active assessment: thinking, learning and assessment in science London: David Fulton Publishers

* The Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (2003, October). An introduction to the scottish credit and qualifications framework Retrieved March 18th 2009 from http://www.sqa.org.uk/files_ccc/IntroductiontoSCQF-2ndEdition.pdf

* The Scottish Government. (2008, April 24). Consultation for future arrangements of national qualifications Retrieved March 18th 2009 from http://www.scotland.gov.uk/News/This-Week/Speeches/smarter/natqual

* The Scottish Government. (2009, February). Research on the consultation on the next generation of national qualifications in Scotland Retrieved March 18th 2009 from http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Resource/Doc/261963/0078333.pdf

* The Scottish Office. (1996). Scottish certificate of education: standard grade Retrieved 18th March 2009 from http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library/documents/standard.htm

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