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In this first section, I will aim to discuss what Assessment for Learning (AfL) involves and its role in the classroom. I will draw upon examples from my own teaching experiences and observations from school placements to critically review effective and ineffective use of AfL.
As described by Learning Teaching Scotland (LTS), the Assessment is for Learning programme is made up of three forms of assessment; Assessment as Learning, which involves learning about how to learn Assessment for Learning which involves continuously using assessment to support classroom learning and teaching in order for pupils to progress effectively and is a formative approach, and Assessment of Learning (AoL) which involves assessing pupils at the end of a topic or course to find out what learning has or has not taken place. It is a summative approach which ultimately uses grading to provide data and make judgements about the learner and the school. LTS represent these forms of assessment as a triangle which also shows the relationship between the curriculum, learning and teaching and assessment.
AfL represents a change in the traditional model of school assessment, which previously has been the idea that the only desirable outcome form education was the achievement of top grades (summative assessment). Modern approaches such as AfL aims to encourage pupils to learn in a deep, constructivist manner (Cohen et al., 2004, p300) and not merely surface learning which occurs when 'teaching to the test' (Bryce, 2009 Lecture ).
The Assessment is for Learning programme is essentially trying to get teachers to do less AoL and more AfL (Bryce, 2011 Lecture). LTS have based this idea upon the work of Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. They documented their research on formative assessment in Inside the Black Box (London: King's College, 1998). In this paper, the authors describe formative assessment as:
"activities undertaken by teachers and by their students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged" (Pe 8)
From this it can be understood that formative assessment involves the teacher and the pupil interpreting their teaching and learning and providing feedback to one another. This feedback is then used as an indication as to how to proceed with the lesson or how to improve on previous work and learning. Therefore, assessment is not just about how well the pupils DID, it is about how they ARE doing and how to improve further.
I will now discuss examples from my own teaching experiences and observations from my placement school where AfL and successful teaching approaches were very much embedded into the lessons of all year groups.
During both placements, I observed several teachers sharing the learning objectives with the class using the 'We Are Learning To' method. I observed that this method was commonly used with S1 and S2 classes and less frequently S3 upwards. I implemented this method into all my classes, from 1st to 4th year, and although this method does not appear to be an effective assessment tool as the outcomes are being introduced before any teaching has taken place, by referring to the outcomes during and at the end of the lesson 'ensures that both teacher and pupil are clear that the learning journey is on the right track' (Simpson, 2006, p64). Therefore, teachers are challenged to constantly assess whether the pupils have learnt the intended objectives. By referring to the objectives at the end and asking pupils to what they felt they had achieved or learnt helped me to assess whether the objectives I had written up were in fact achievable, whether the lesson activities helped to meet the objectives or were too numerous, as I had been over optimistic in what I aimed to achieve in a lesson. Reflection and evaluating my teaching is vital to ensure that appropriate and effective learning is taking place at all times. Kerry (2004) supports this idea:
"Master teachers share learning outcomes to assess whether the learning journey is on the right track and whether it is on target to reach its destination" (p100)
By referring to the objectives at the end of the lesson, also helped me to gauge the learning of my pupils and check for areas of difficulty because in my experience pupils who understood the lesson could relate this to the learning objective and likewise, pupils who did not understand key areas could relate this to the outcome they could not meet. Asking for pupil feedback not only allowed me to assess their learning but helped me with planning for the next lesson and its starter, because in some cases I had to go over certain key points again. An example of this was where pupils fed back to me that they did not understand what the term 'niche' meant. This was a learning objective, thus next lesson, I went over the term again, and provided further examples but also asked them to carry out a matching exercise requiring to match the niche with the organism. When I got feedback from the class again they were all able to successfully state the definition of 'niche'.
I would revisit the LOs at the end of the lesson, followed by a question and answer session involving all pupils, however, I didn't always have as much time as I needed for the Q&A, so I used a method I observed other teachers use, which was request feedback from the class by asking them to write down anything they were unsure about or did not understand as well as what they had learnt, on a post-it-note and stick it on the board before leaving.
Other forms of effective feedback I observed included the 'thumbs' method in which thumbs were raised if pupils were happy with the work; thumbs were halfway showing slight concern and thumbs were fully down if the pupil was struggling. By asking the entire class to do this the teacher was able to evaluate the progress of the whole class and if there were problems they were dealt with then, during that lesson.
I also observed the use of and used myself mini whiteboards as a method of whole class evaluation. I found it invaluable, not just for a change in pupil activity but as a useful assessment tool and also an effective method of getting the whole class to answer as opposed to a dominate few.
During this placement, I carried out formative marking of homework with all my classes, using comments only. Ian smith (2003) states:
"Marks with comments do not enable students to improve, yet comments on their own do"
This suggests that when pupils are presented with both marks and comments pupils will focus solely on the marks regardless of whether the mark was good or poor, thus ignoring the information that will help them improve.
Black and Harrison (2004) suggest that the type of feedback provided must be beneficial to pupils and enable them to move forward - thus the 2 stars and a wish method was used to highlight areas that where the pupils had done (positive reinforcement) and any area that could be improved upon and how this could be improved upon (next steps and targets).
Although I told the classes to read their feedback or answer any questions I had left, when I took the jotters in to mark the next piece of homework, not all the pupils had completed the previous work's questions or found the answers to questions they had missed out. I think one of the reasons for this is that when I handed back the jotters, most pupils put them away, I should have given the pupils time in class to read the comments and if they had any questions they had the opportunity to ask.
In this section, I will first discuss the conflict between formative assessment (AfL) and summative assessment (AoL). I will then discuss how grades can be used constructively within schools based upon observations and school experience.
Summative assessment and the giving of grades have always had a dominant role in the education system, particularly in the upper school. In fact, such assessment has been derogatively termed 'Assessment is for Grades' (Bryce, 2008, pg 581) indicating as mentioned in section one, that there is a common view that the only worthwhile outcome of school is good grades.
This contrasts greatly with the view of Black and Wiliam who wish to move away from grades and use the formative approach of comments only feedback. The authors state in Inside the Black Box (London: King's College, 1998) that "the giving of marks and the grading functions are over emphasised, while the giving of useful advice and the learning function are under-emphasised". The educational research and literature have shown the benefits of formative assessment, such as promoting deeper learning for all pupils through good quality interactions and feedback on how best to improve. This is not the case however, when grades and summative assessment is used. Wiliam (2008) argues that when pupils do a piece of work, the teacher marks it and if that piece of work gets an A, the pupil gets to keep that grade A even if they subsequently forget everything they ever knew about that topic. The effect of this attitude and teachers only 'teaching to the test' encourages a very shallow approach to the curriculum where teachers and students skate across the surface and everyone feels good because of the grade achieved, however, the pupil does not accumulate any knowledge.
This type of pupil attitude was seen frequently on placement from 1st years having sat their end of topic to tests, to 3rd years having sat their Unit 1 NAB. There were some pupils in each of these classes and the first thing they did was look at their mark and sighed with relief because they had passed. This was particularly evident in the 2 3rd year classes who had just sat their NABs. I found some pupils were happy with the pass and did not care about where they went wrong - because they passed. It is this mentality of 'the grade is what is important' that must be changed. Using a formative approach gets pupils to take responsibility for their learning and to want to better their knowledge as opposed to just scrape by.
Wiliam (1998) has defended the use of comments marking and interestingly though, pupils who just sat a test, NAB or their 4th year prelim, because only grades were given back to pupils, most enquired as to why certain marks were not given, or what exactly was wrong with the answer they wrote down. This highlighted to me, the importance of comments, because there will be some pupils who rely on the feedback to improve, but the challenge is to get all pupils to want to learn how to improve.
Additionally, I also observed grades and final marks de-motivate pupils. Once pupils got their results, they immediately compared marks with each other. For those pupils who had failed their NAB or test, instant disappointment and this is another problem with summative assessment. Low ability pupils and pupils who frequently receive low marks expect and face constant disappointment when they get their results back. Pupils, who have often experienced failure, will not expose themselves to any further failure. Therefore, they do not possess the will to succeed and do well, consequently affecting their progress in school (Kyriacou, 2001).
Furthermore, summative assessments are not wholly reliable as I believe them to be a snapshot of how students performed on the day in an exam or test and does not fully reflect overall student progress and performance. The grades achieved are over-interpreted by parents too who, from observations made whilst sitting in on parent's evening, solely focus on the grade as opposed to pupil development. Parents of S2 pupils were consistently asking what level their child would be sitting in 3rd and 4th year and in some cases argued that Intermediate 1 was not appropriate and they wanted their child to sit intermediate 2, even though the pupils in question were happy to be sitting Int 1 because they struggled with science. Schools are constantly being compared with each other in league tables, and the media and the government can easily make their comparisons and produce literature based on summative assessment forms. This is more difficult to do with other forms of assessment.
Summative assessments can produce data which is relied upon by employers and other educational institutes to see what skills pupils have developed; thus showing that grades and results will be an integral part of the school system. Although I think that there are problems with grading, mainly the effect on pupil attitude and motivation, I do not believe summative assessments should be abolished. AfL promotes the development of learning I think after the hard work in classes where pupils have recognised their strengths and weaknesses and tried to improve, they should have the right to gain a recognised qualification.
Despite the negative views on grading and summative assessment I believe it can be used constructively and in a formative role to promote wider and deeper learning. Whilst on placement I observed an innovative approach to going through prelims with senior classes. The teacher I observed used an approach which I imitated with one of my own classes. The teacher asked the pupils to work in pairs and on the mini whiteboards create a marking scheme for section A (multiple choice). Effectively, the pupils were re-doing the prelim, but they had the opportunity to discuss and learn from one another before marking their efforts using the marking scheme. The next lesson the teacher split the class into groups. Each table had a set of questions from section B of the prelim and they had to work together to create another marking scheme for the specific questions, before rotating round to the next table and working through those questions. Once pupils had completed all the questions, the teacher went through the answers, and groups marked their efforts. When I questioned the class, they all told me they knew where they had gone wrong in the prelim and they knew what mistakes not to make again. The peer support helped them feel more confident as they discussed how they interpreted the questions as well as compared methods and answers. Typically with a test or prelim, the teacher would go through each question and give the answers, but this simply bores and de-motivates the pupils. However, this class teacher had turned a summative assessment into a real active learning opportunity for the pupils.
There is clearly some overlap between the 2 forms of assessment as it is AfL which will, in effect, help pupils to achieve better grades when AoL takes place. Thus, finding a balance between the approaches, mainly using summative assessment formatively, can be an effective tool for developing successful learners.
Within section 3a I shall identify some of the positive features of the Standard Grade and Intermediate courses, as well as indicate the differences in assessment structure between the 2 courses.
Standard Grades (SG) replaced Ordinary Grades in the 1980s after the school leaving age was raised to 16. It was felt that Ordinary grades were only suitable for 30% of the school population, thus SGs were proposed to help meet the needs of those pupils now required to stay in school (Bryce, 2008). Simpson (2006) states:
"The introduction of Standard Grades led to a much bigger proportion of the cohort than previously, gaining qualifications and in a wider range of subjects".
This shows that SGs fulfilled their intended purpose, providing a course that was achievable for all. One reason for this is the advantage of having three SG levels, thus accommodating all levels of ability. More able pupils can be pushed, whilst less able pupils have material they can cope with but also have an opportunity to achieve the higher of the two levels, since SG candidates are represented at two levels, Credit/General or General/Foundation, thus providing a good motivator.
This aspect contrasts greatly with Intermediate courses, since pupils doing Intermediate 1/2 are all the same level, and this can lead to classes with a wide range of abilities. This was evident in my placement school, where S3 and S4 pupils sat Intermediate courses. The mixed level of ability was diverse and also caused concern since any pupil who was not coping could not simply be placed down a level because the Intermediate 1 and Intermediate 2 courses were very different in Biology. Thus, teachers had to determine what was best for the pupil whether it was a case of maturity, or risk pupils being put in Intermediate 1, and them having to catch up a year's worth of work.
Furthermore, SGs are always taught over 2 years. Thus providing both teachers and pupils enough time to fully comprehend the topic and focus more on learning rather than assessment. Schools which run SG courses mean that the Intermediate courses are taught over one year and as seen in my first placement school, there is added pressure for the teacher to get through the required material, thus learning and teaching opportunities may missed due to time constraints. Additionally, there is more chance of teachers 'teaching to the test'. In my second placement however, as the Intermediate 2 courses ran the same length as SG courses, I observed that the extra time was highly beneficial and likewise, allowed for more creative and active lessons, as well as AfL approaches.
The assessment of the 2 courses is very different also. SGs are externally assessed, although some subjects like English require a portfolio which contributes to the grade. Intermediate courses however, are both internally and externally assessed, and are very similar in structure to Higher Still, thus enabling continuity when pupils move on. Pupils are required to sit National Assessment Banks (NAB) at the end of every section in the course. This can be stressful for pupils as they are sitting several Intermediates, so will have to sit several NABs and can have the feeling of "being NAB'd to death" (Bryce, 2011). Teachers also have an increased workload and paperwork with quality marking of the NABs. The increase in assessment in Intermediates can also de-motivate pupils should they fail, but also because NABs are pitched at level C so depending on their mark they may feel apprehensive about the exams. However, there is an opportunity to re-assess pupils, since NABs can be re-sat.
In additional to differences in internal assessment, the external assessment of both courses are very different and distinct advantages. As mentioned, the SG candidates have the opportunity to sit two levels, thus aim for the higher of the two, however, this means that SG pupils will be sitting at least 16 exams. This can cause a lot of pressure for pupils. Whereas, for Intermediate courses there is only 1 exam per subject, thus this can encourage pupils to do the best that they can as it is one opportunity. With SG, pupils have a safety net with the lower level; however, Intermediate pupils don't have that. Instead if pupils do fail, they will have their NABs recognised by the SQA.
The last difference in terms of assessment is the grading of each course. Intermediate grading system of A-C has no limit for pupils, where as SG grading system is 1-7 and pupils sitting General/Foundation are limited in their possible grade, as the highest they can achieve is a 3.
At the moment pupils taking 8 SGs currently sit 'more than 20 hours of examinations, which exceed most universities Honours diet of examinations' (Souter, 2008, pg 445). Thus, the argument that current school pupils are being over-assessed is well understood. A CfE aims to address this issue with the proposed National 4 and National 5 qualifications. The focus on these assessments is to "promote greater breadth and depth of learning, including a greater focus on the secure development of skills and knowledge" (LTS, 2011)
Although CfE has been implemented officially in schools this year, with the current S1; these new qualifications will not be sat until session 2013/14. National 4 is based at SCQF level 4 and will replace Intermediate 1 and general level SG, whilst National 5 is based at SCQF level 5 and will replace Intermediate 2 and credit level SG.
However, the main development of these new qualifications is that national 4 will be internally assessed by schools Teachers will continually assess pupils through coursework and at the end of the course, pupils will be awarded either a pass or a fail. National 5 on the other hand will be both internally assessed by the school, but also externally assessed by the SQA at the end of the course.
For pupils, the National 4 strategy will ease the pressure and stress which accumulates with exams. However, for teachers and schools alike, there will be a definite increase in the workload for both all qualifications, not only in marking but by creating assessments. All internal assessments must be valid in that the tests must assess what is supposed to be tested and is a fair representation of pupil's knowledge, skills and abilities. Assessments must also be reliable in that they must be consistent in marking and of standards. (Cohen et al., 2004, pg 331&335).
Currently, 13,500 of the 58,500 (23%) total school population leave school with qualifications at the time pupils will have sat their National 4 level assessment. Therefore, although by no means a majority, this number of pupils will leave school at this time without ever having sat an externally assessed exam.
As well as this, the government will have to provide sufficient and adequate information on the new qualifications for both employers and parents. With just a pass or fail, employers may not rely on the National 4 and will need further evidence to show how well pupils actually did. School reports or portfolios of coursework and assessments for pupils may need to be provided; again this will add to the ever-increasing workload of teachers.
Furthermore, parents will need to be both fully onboard with the new qualifications and understand their purpose. Intermediates have been in place in school for several years, yet during parents evening I observed many parents still seeking clarification as to what these qualifications actually are and asking for comparisons compared to O Grades and GCSEs. Thus information for parents is vital, not only so that they are aware of the changes that their children will face but also so that they too can support them at home. Regular feedback and reports of pupil progress will have to be given to parents, throughout National 4 and 5 courses.
Although the new proposals will reduce the assessment burdens for pupils considerably and provide opportunities for deeper more meaningful learning, I believe that teachers will need to be properly supported throughout the introduction of these qualifications. Thus, they can then focus on creating effective learning and teaching experiences which will develop the skills and abilities of all their pupils, so that they can leave school as effective contributors, successful learners, confident individuals and responsible citizens.