Assessment continues to be a somewhat thorny issue in the Education System, particularly with the dawn of a new government. Summative tests are frequently introduced, modified then scrapped with what seems from my perspective both as a Head of Department and Head of Year, very little consultation with those who have to administer and correct the tests - the teachers. It is unarguable that there is a need for assessment within the education system and in the current climate there seems to be a great need for someone to be accountable for the progress of each individual passing through a school. Being a Head of Department in an 'ordinary' state comprehensive school, there is an enormous amount of pressure placed on individuals like me to achieve better and better results year after year in 'high stakes' summative assessments. This is of course because of the publication of league tables comparing schools within a Local Authority. The publication of said lists has led us as a society to become ever more consumerist in regards to our children's education - perhaps rightly so. Although I am not a parent, nor am I ever likely to be one, I have found myself looking at league tables to compare which schools I would encourage my sister to send my nephew and niece to. In an ideal world, this would be a very straightforward process, but life is very rarely that simple. There are always influencing external factors, such as travel costs, uniform costs (socio-economic) and whether a school is deemed 'too posh', 'too strict', 'too rough' (socio-cultural).
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Working in a school that has regularly used the Contextual Value Added measure as a means of promoting the school in the local area, to encourage parents to consider the school for their children, it made me wonder how we as a school would be able to promote ourselves with the removal of this measure. In the 2010 White Paper: 'The Importance of Teaching' the government argued that it was 'morally wrong to have an attainment measure which entrenches low aspirations for children because of their background'. Personally, I find this concept difficult to grasp since I am/was one of the students in question. Should I not have done well in school since I was from a single parent family, living in a council house on Free School Meals? Am I one of the exceptions to the rule? In all honesty, I think if the desire to do well is there, any pupil will achieve and perhaps 'over' achieve.
Barriers to success?
The government seem to believe that any negative socio-economic factors will be negated through using 'pupil premium'. It makes me wonder how this is going to be the case since in the current economic climate, budgets in Education amongst other public sectors are being cut/rationalised/streamlined. One example of this is happening within my own context, in that the Local Authority is considering extending the free school travel radius, thus making more pupils pay to get to school since they will be ineligible for the school bus. If the pupil premium, as described in the White Paper, is designed to be a means of 'improving the life chances of our young people' and then there are different measures put in place to restrict their very access to certain schools, would this not have a massively negative effect on the life chances of perhaps a large yet vulnerable group of young people? Given the catchment of the school in which I work, there is a certain cohort of pupils whose background could be likened to that being described in the White Paper - a 'deeply embedded culture of low aspiration'. This is something I face every day in respect of the 'high stakes' assessments, the attitude of, 'Well, I have a C, I am happy with that' when both I know and they know they are capable of more.
There are always going to be certain forms of assessment which suit some individuals but not others but the end result as it stands currently, is a grade on a certificate which quantifies your learning to differentiate you from the thousands of others who sat the very same assessment. There is certainly some evidence to say that pupils from poorer socio-economic backgrounds do not achieve or attain as well as others and I would tend to agree with Harlen & Deakin-Crick (2002) that pupils in this situation can be demotivated by tests, exams, assessments but does this mean we should excuse these pupils from such assessments? I think not. If life once we left school was just a case of meandering along in the world of work without any accountability wouldn't it be nice? However, there is every likelihood that no matter which job a pupil has in their future, there will be some sort of probationary period or annual appraisal or sales target. I cannot see their superiors letting them opt out of those.
So what now?
Always on Time
Marked to Standard
Since formative assessment came into the educational forum and indeed into the media spotlight it has been the focus of observations, Local Authority (LA) inspections and Ofsted inspections yet it is still often a 'bit of a grey area' for many practitioners and until very recently, I counted myself in that group. On the first day of the spring term, the whole staff at the school in which I teach attended a CPD day on the topic of Assessment for Learning (AfL). This was to address the fact the AfL was still a 'grey area' for some departments and that these departments required some intervention to improve the quality of the feedback given to pupils. The LA inspector delivering the session, with whom I had worked on AfL previously, proclaimed that despite all of the best efforts of people like him AfL was not working. Just when I thought I had a good grasp of it, based on a 'good' departmental inspection just weeks before which had said our feedback was 'exemplary', I was being told it was all for nothing? Thankfully, as the day progressed, it was clarified that it was not AfL per se which did not work, but rather the lack of skill in delivery. Many practitioners can deliver a showcase lesson in which they tick all of the correct boxes regarding AfL, but to do this regularly in lessons so that it makes sense to the pupils is where the difficulties lie. In hindsight, this was the inspector's interpretations of 'Looking again at formative assessment' (Black 2009). As a languages teacher, it is my interpretation of AfL that pupils cannot and must not compartmentalise grammatical aspects of the language since they will apply in other contexts and pupils must be able to decode the structures and apply them in many other contexts. Can anyone communicate with a list of nouns? Unlikely. These Modular Outcomes are necessary to build an active vocabulary in the target language, but are not a means of communication themselves. Over the years in my teaching practice, I have seen myself moving away from this style of teaching more and more. Currently I would consider myself firmly planted in the Longitudinal Outcomes arena, with a far more skills based approach to language learning, where, over time, pupils are able to function with less and less scaffolding from me as the teacher. The ultimate goal of this strategy is the ability of pupils to perform at GCSE in the new style controlled assessments.
Having been at the in-service day, it struck me that the school as whole were very likely at differing levels of need regarding the intervention in pupil feedback. This one-size-fits-all approach might indeed be cost effective, but was it actually effective? In an interview in the Guardian newspaper in 2011, Dylan William argued that, "the trick was to raise everybody's game". I fail to see how this can be done through a whole school in-service training day. I personally have seen the benefits of AfL in my own classroom practice, but unless it is commonplace and not a one-off for an inspection, it is worthless as an exercise.
Quantification or bust?
I admit I am supportive of what both Wiliam and Black say about classroom discourse, but I find it increasingly more disappointing that such discourse is now being weighed and measured in a feeble attempt to determine the quantity of AfL occurring in a one hour lesson. How can discourse be measured? solely through the feedback on a piece of work? Surely this does not accurately quantify teacher/pupil discourse or AfL?
The desire to quantify learning in the current educational climate astounds me. Within my school and from what I can gather, in other schools in the locale, there are three rounds of data capturing each year for each pupil. Can a pupil demonstrate enough progress in a matter of weeks so that a new grade/level/sub-level can be entered so that the teacher can validate what has been taught in the classroom? In some cases I suspect the answer is yes, but for me in my context, the answer is frequently no. Grasping the transferable skills necessary to communicate in a foreign language takes considerably longer than a school term. These longitudinal outcomes are far more useful as a skill in language learning (the perfect tense for example) and are far harder to quantify due to the varied nature of the outcome (some verbs are easier than other for example)
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It seems to me, that in the current climate, it seems the assessment-tail is wagging the pedagogic-dog. Alexander et al (2011) claim that high stakes tests do indeed seem to cause an increase in standards due to the 'teaching-to-the-test' style adopted by teachers and I include myself in that group. However they go on to state that this is, "essentially a halo effect, and it does not last". This implies that higher grades â‰ better learners. A former colleague of mine had a phrase which I found amusing yet surprisingly appropriate for the current education climate and does seem to mirror what Alexander et al were saying in their review:
"You don't make a pig fatter by weighing it all the time"
Section 2 - Developing Assessment Practice
Can 'flair' (creativity) be taught?
A bit of background
In section one, I alluded to the Modular and Longitudinal Outcomes of MLB and in this section I shall deal with the Background outcomes since this is widely regarded as the most important but is rarely explicit and is very difficult to quantify and assess.
The summer 2011 GCSE examination is the first with the new specification, which includes a 60% weighting for the controlled tests in both speaking and writing. The guidelines set out by the examination board state that there is to be very limited input by the teacher, so to encourage independent language learners who can truly communicate in the target language. The coursework that the controlled tests have replaced was very teacher led in that we knew as teachers we could coach them on how/what to write and inflate their marks so that they were better prepared for their entry into the 'high stakes' assessments at the end of the course. This of course put pressure on the teachers. The new assessments are designed to put the onus on the pupils, but in fact are even more stressful for the teachers since there is limited control from us. Of course the pressure is still there for us to get the good grades in the final exams and the letter on the piece of paper in the summer results is as important as it ever was (perhaps even more so with the launch of the English Baccalaureate). Due to this, we must now ensure, as practitioners, that we do indeed create independent learners who have the means of communicating in the target language at at least the target grade as set out by the Fischer Family Trust.
For those pupils whose target grade is a grade-B or lower, the Modular and the Longitudinal outcomes are generally sufficient since the design of the GCSE papers encompasses these outcomes. However, for the A/A* targets, there is the notion of 'flair' or creativity necessary to access these higher grades. The idea of flair/creativity is something which is incredibly difficult to teach because it seems some pupils are naturally creative and have in-built flair in what they write or say, yet others are finding themselves battling to break through this invisible ceiling which is capping there work at a grade-B. Given these pupils began their career at my school before the current educational reforms, it made me consider the fact that Carol Dweck (1999) was indeed correct that we as an institution, perhaps as a society, had created learners with 'learned helplessness'.
Figure 1: Pupil Processes
The diagram above shows in its simplest form, the process I want the pupils to go through.
Making it better?
Pupils often simply want to know the grade they achieved for a certain piece of work and then seem pleased or dissatisfied with the answer. My aim was to 'train' them into wanting to know how they could improve their work rather than settling for the grade received. After some previous work with the LA inspector mentioned in the previous section on marking and feedback, as a Languages department, we had made a real effort to modify our feedback and marking policy. We wanted to work smarter not harder and that meant streamlining what we chose to focus on in any given piece of work. The practice of correction of all mistakes within a piece of work coupled with a cursory 'bon effort' or 'sehr gut' at the end would not inform the pupil what was 'bon' or indeed 'gut'. Often, the quantity of red pen negated any positive comment and left the pupil feeling somewhat dejected, in spite of the work actually being of a decent standard. This of course led to comments which I still hear from adults now about their own language lessons, "I was rubbish at French/German etc".
Cowie (2005) states: "We need to understand how students interpret and respond to feedback and assessment in general". If the process mentioned above was creating negativity towards their own abilities and views of the subject, then it was simply the wrong thing to be doing and Cowie's findings were indeed correct. The whole idea of language is for communication to take place and so we, as a department, focused on only the parts in any piece of work which did not communicate anything relevant. This in turn led to a massive reduction in our marking load as well as a positive reaction from pupils in that there was far less red pen on their work. The next step was to create creative learners.
"All such work involves new ways to enhance feedback between those taught and the teacher, ways which require new modes of pedagogy - which will require significant changes in classroom practice". (Black & Wiliam Inside the Black Box 1998)
The statement above is certainly my own experience in trying to teach pupils creativity and introduce flair into their work. With any new style of pedagogy, there is a certain amount of friction from pupils since they are very often fond of routine and breaking their routine can often cause some reticence in trying the new initiative. The first lesson in which I attempted to engage the pupils in using some higher level language (modifiers/temporal adverbs/higher level conjunctions) I was met with a sea of questioning faces since I was not telling them which ones to use nor was I telling them where to put them, I was asking them to assess their own work and another pupil's to see where, if anywhere, these new concepts would work. Not knowing how long it would take, I allowed the class 20 minutes to read their own paragraph and that of another and to see if they could inject some flair between them. After the twenty minutes, almost no pupils had managed to do as I asked. I was surprised at the lack of progress, when I had essentially asked them to insert four to six words into a paragraph of approximately 80 words, in order to improve the quality of the language.
Making it better? (2.0)
In hindsight, I can see where I was going wrong. Black and Wiliam state:
"Underlying the various approaches are assumptions about what makes for effective learning - in particular that students have to be actively involved"
The pupils were not 'actively' involved since they had essentially been thrown in at the deep-end with little guidance from me. This caused me to re-evaluate my approach to the teaching of flair and creativity by giving the pupils an example of how to insert some higher level language and by letting them know that they needed to pick vocabulary with which they were most comfortable. The results from this second approach were far more encouraging, in that some of the pupils began to see which words they could use effectively thus improving their piece of work overall. The barrier I found most startling to this whole process, was that a number of pupils, despite having a target grade of A/A*, did not have the English literacy skills to use the words I was trying to get them to use in French. This of course caused me to reflect on whether there ought to be some overlap in what we were teaching in the foreign languages department with what was being taught in the English department. The assumption by the exam board (and by me) was that pupils who are targeted the highest grades would have a very good level of literacy in English, which they do, but that it was more in their passive rather than active vocabulary.
Black and Wiliam go on to state:
"For assessment to function formatively, the results have to be used to adjust teaching and learning - so a significant aspect of any programme will be the ways in which the teachers do this"
I found this to be the case in my own lessons in my quest to embed flair or creativity in my students so that when they came to do their speaking and written assessments (which account for 60% of their final grade) they were able to perform to the best of their ability. I reflected that in order for the process I was targeting to become second nature for the pupils, I had to make them aware of how to use the higher level conjunctions etc. in their mother-tongue before I could get them to use them in French. Logical in hindsight.
At present, this is the stage I am at with the pupils. They have a controlled assessment in the final half term of the academic year and that is the time-frame in which I have to work. I have deconstructed the whole process and am now focussing on one or two 'flair-words' each lesson and building the focus around them, no matter what the modular outcome (vocabulary level) may be. The results so far are very encouraging, ranging from the lowest level - being able to recite by rote the vocabulary we are focusing on this week/term, to a far more advanced response - pupils are actively seeking ways of including certain words into all of their pieces of work. I admit, there has been some 'overkill' in the usage of certain phrases (althoughâ€¦.) and the distinct lack of usage of some of the vocabulary (nevertheless), but the process as it stands has certainly encouraged the pupils to look at ways to improve their work in a way I would never have expected. Crossing this threshold or entering this liminal state in their learning cycle and then focusing on it writes Cousin (2006) are the 'jewels in the curriculum' and focusing on this "allows for richer and more complex insights into aspects of the subjects students are studying" (Land et al 2006).
As a practitioner, I am always keen to use pair and group work since I always find there is some mileage in the phrase, 'two brains are better than one' and I find if pupils work with friends on a task, there might well be some off task talking, but they ultimately work better together because of the reassurance of their peers. In this process of trying to embed flair, the pupils who are more adept at inserting the key phrase/word are more than willing to share their new-found skills with their friends in a very supportive way which is making my own role in the process more of an overseer than leading the process. Another benefit, although sometimes it does make me cringe, is that pupils are far more willing to accept (sometimes scathing) criticism from their peers without becoming demotivated, whereas if I had said a similar thing, I have no doubt in my mind I would be hearing phrases similar to those stated previously: 'I am rubbish at French' / 'I can't do French'.
Before beginning this module, I must admit, I had not heard of 'Inside the Black Box', however after reading it along with the interview with Wiliam from the Guardian newspaper, I had no idea how much I agreed with what he said.
"The ways in which assessment can affect the motivation and self-esteem of pupils and the benefits of engaging in self-assessment, both deserve careful attention"
I had always somehow known that Black and Wiliam's statement above was correct from having taught for almost 13 years, but it was not until I read 'Inside the Black Box' and applied what was written to my current practice did I realise just how important it was in language learning. Confidence, or lack thereof, is the single biggest barrier to language learning amongst the pupils I teach in the North East. Nobody wants to look foolish and/or damage their 'street-cred' and this leads to some reluctant pupils, unwilling to attempt anything in front of their peers. However, through this on-going process I am (somewhat) hopeful that with their seemingly burgeoning confidence, my current Y10 classes, when in Y11, will be willing and more importantly able, to speak about what is being learned in the lesson and will be rewarded with success in their controlled assessments. So, to answer I asked at the beginning of this section, yes I believe creativity can be taught, however it comes with the caveat that it difficult to quantify and it is a timely process.
Section 3 - Spreading and Embedding
So, what next?
There were few difficulties in planning the changes and attempting to teach flair in that I had a predetermined bank of language that I wanted the pupils to be able to use in their original pieces of work. The difficulties arose when I seemed to have assumed too much ability in the pupils' English literacy, thus I had to take two steps back and reassess my implementation techniques. This was not time consuming in itself, but it made me wonder if able Y10 pupils were not accessing the language as easily as I thought they might, would younger pupils manage it if I were to cascade the language down into Key Stage three? Since the work is an on-going process, I have not yet decided how, when or if I shall develop the language strategy into Y9. The benefits of this process for my Y10 pupils in seeing how helpful peer-assessment will certainly be developed into KS3, since the peer assessment currently carried out, tends to be if something is right or wrong, rather than it being neither (but perhaps able to be improved).
Moving towards an 'Educational Utopia'?
Black's findings echo my own when he states, "In peer marking all pupils can be involved and are often more honest and challenging with one another than with their teacher". As previously stated in section two, pupils' comments can sometimes be rather scathing, yet still manage to succeed in a creating a mutually beneficial solution. Having observed several of my colleagues in my role as a Key Stage Leader, I am aware of a number of colleagues who regularly use peer assessment in a variety of styles as well as some who do not use it at all or in its most simple form, self-marking of tests. In some cases I am convinced that some staff are reluctant to push themselves out of their comfort zone so that they can see that allowing pupils some freedom to explore each other's work does not always result in off-task chatter. Peer-coaching might be the answer to this, coupled with observations of colleagues who conduct peer-assessment well where pupils are well-versed in what is necessary. There is currently an initiative to form coaching groups in school and I should hope that this idea will be explored within the coaching groups. In Black's most recent report, he states, "To a very real extent, teachers are what they do, and so asking them to change what they do, involves changing who they are". As a teacher, I whole-heartedly agree with this statement and knowing that one has to change something in one's lessons can prove to be far trickier than a non-teacher might realise. With the new coaching initiative, I hope that given time, staff will be able to adapt and change certain facets of their practice and not become too self-critical. As a group in my experience, teachers can be extremely self-critical once a new initiative is launched because of their lack of mastery of it in the first instance. I count myself in this group of people.
Whether my initiative involving flair or creativity fits with school policy, who can say? If it has the desired effect to improve grades and so improve attainment and achievement, then yes, it would certainly fit with school policy in this instance. If I cannot quantify how/when/why it has or has not made any impact, then I am almost certainly going to struggle to justify my strategy. I see Black's ideal where "we create an environment in every school in which each teacher expects to improve their practice continuously" as somewhat distant (certainly in my context) but not some impossible idyll. If senior leaders in school could allow staff more time for trial and error without needing feedback and/or a quantity of impact at every juncture, we may move towards Black's 'Educational Utopia' far more quickly.
National assessment policies are always trying to create better learners, but better grades do not necessarily a better learner make. The style of the controlled tests for GCSE in Modern Foreign Languages is little more than a large memory test. If you have a good memory, you will do well. The downside to this is that you might not have a clue about what you have written or be able to use any of the language in another context. As a practitioner, this is the dilemma I face: Teach to the exam memory-test style and get better grades; teach pupils how to communicate in a foreign language and run the risk of lower grades; straddle the two and hope for the best. At present, it is the last strategy I am trying with the view that it will over the two year course have a longer term benefit to the pupils so that by the time they sit their exams in 2012 they will have learned something rather than done something for two years.