Unleashing the Complexity

Assessment in the new Scottish Curriculum is still a hot topic for all involved. Obviously there’s the looming (or present for some schools) implementation of the new National Qualifications, but there’s still a lot of head scratching going on around assessment in 3-15. Whilst there are obviously many issues around the new approach, there are a particular group which interest me. These are around the complexities which arise from the new model of assessment in 3-15. I’ll broadly categorise these as…

We’re not as sure about where pupils are at. Without the National Assessments how can we be sure which level a pupil is working at? This for me is the wrong way of looking at it. Could it be that we were never sure? Perhaps the National Assessments provided a false sense of confidence as they papered of the complexities that were always there? People are complicated learners. We will never know precisely where one learner is on their journey and any categories will always be imperfect. This will be especially the case when the categorisation is achieved through a limited piece of assessment. Isn’t it the case that the 5-14 levels were originally supposed to be assigned by the teacher based on a wide range of evidence with the National Assessments used more as a secondary benchmarking tool? That sounds much better than the way it appeared to have ended up in many cases. If we are ever confident that we have a system that can simply and easily categorise something as complex and lacking in understanding as learning into a number of boxes, then we have gone seriously wrong. Learning, and learners, are complex. Assessment and judgements of progress should therefore be complex also, we should worry if they are not. We need to try and relax a little and revel in the complexity.

What do we do with pupils who haven’t achieved a level? Let’s ask this another way…what we do with pupils who haven’t progressed as much as others? This isn’t a new problem. Surely the issue of pupils progressing in different ways and at different rates didn’t arrive with Curriculum of Excellence? I’m not claiming that the issue of differentiating in a classroom is easy, I’m just trying to suggest it’s not new. It has, perhaps, been brought more to the fore as a result of what I’ve already discussed above. If complexities of progress have been brought out due to a more holistic approach to assessment, perhaps this is more likely to lead to the identification of a differential of progression in a class. Again, although this isn’t easy to deal with…surely this can only be a good thing from the pupils’ perspective?

How can we report to parents without “robust” evidence? For me, this question reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of reports to parents. We are not the SQA. Our job is not to “assign” grades or levels which need be backed up with tons of rigorous evidence. The purpose of a report to parents should be to communicate progress in such a way to allow parents to support their children to make whatever next steps are required to improve. As such, I think it’s more important that the comment in the report reflects the complexities of the young person’s learning, than providing some sort of “reliable” level. In which case we need a holistic approach to assessment which allows us to validly access all the different forms of progression and not over rely on one particular form of summative assessment in our quest for reliability.

These thoughts reflect my own developing understanding of assessment in Curriculum for Excellence as a teacher and CfE Development Officer and I’m sharing them here in the hope that they help other teachers…however, I also appreciate that until those that hold us to account take a similar approach to assessment and progression we’ll always be a bit up against it. But, that’s not a reason to give up. We need to keep embracing the complexity and pushing others to do so too. Otherwise, we risk selling our learners short.

5 thoughts on “Unleashing the Complexity

  1. Paul Cochrane

    Interesting that the SQA at a recent INSET told us there are 3 packs on the way – Oct/Feb/May. Pack 1 is the traditional assessment (‘Nabbish?), Pack 2 the flexible approach and Pack 3 the portfolio approach. It was then interesting to hear 2 SQA reps state that they were urging us to use the traditional method in the first year as it will have been moderated. Otherwise, ‘you will need to do lots of extra work in August getting your approach moderated/verified before you can use it.’ It seemed to be a very conservative approach but most present agreed it reduced workload and worry.

    I agree that we should embrace the complexity but in secondary you can have 8 classes of 33 pupils meaning a factor of eight increase in complexity in comparison to a primary class. Therein lies the rub – is this practical and feasible? Is it desirable if you can just as easily attain progress that has been verified in advance by using the Pack 1 approach? Is it a good thing if a teacher’s energy is diverted towards more assessment when they could be researching better pedagogies to further engage their pupils?

    Interesting times lie ahead.

    1. Fearghal Post author

      I see where you’re coming from here, but I particularly have tried to focus on the Broad General Education in this post. I do think we can have a slightly different approach to assessment in the 3-15 phase as it serves a different purpose. We cannot, however, untangle assessment from pedagogy. Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment are intricately intertwined and we cannot abandon one and hope to be successful in the others.

      In reference to the SQA packs though, I’ve had a sneak preview of pack 1 for my subject area as a member of the QDT and I was disappointed but not surprised by the conservative approach…we are not, however, bound to this in its entirety and we need to ensure we use these resources appropriately. In my context, some of it simply wouldn’t fit given our approach to teaching and learning, but some of it will be fine. We need to have the confidence to do what we know is right.

  2. Paul Cochrane

    THank yo for your reply Fearghal, certainly we are finding we are experiencing development overload just now writing S1/2 courses and implementing new Nationals a year in advance of when they should! had an interesting discussion with a biology teacher though this morning. After this year from hell, ‘what difference does the structure make if it’s all about pedagogy?’ We genuinely came to the eventual conclusion of ‘none!’ Has anyone else got an opinion on this matter?

    Background : we have started teaching trilevel N3/4/5 classes in S3 on a 2 year journey.

  3. George Gilchrist

    All very true Fearghal. Meaningful assessment of pupil’s progress in their learning is, like learning itself, very messy! One of the biggest issues we face is the langauge we use in reporting and giving information to parents. Are we and they clear in what we are saying about a pupil’s learning and where they are in relation to expectations? This is helped if we are communicating with parents throughout the school year, and reporting is seen as part of an ongoing process.

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