How should schools measure and evidence learning? How should the evidence be considered when it is obtained? How can teachers support students in partnership with them, rather than just teaching ‘at’ them?
Attitudes to assessment – and everything that informs it
That young people ‘go to school’ in order to learn seems completely self-evident, but the question of how we know they are learning is rather more complex. This is not just a question for the adults, either; students themselves are well placed to ask how they know themselves that they are learning effectively. This brings us to a series of questions. How should schools measure and evidence learning? How should the evidence be considered when it is obtained? How can educators support young people in partnership with them, rather than just teaching ‘at’ them? The concept of assessment is one of the most important topics in education, and getting it right is at the core of any successful learning institution.
How does a teacher know if a child is learning?
Historically, two styles of assessment have been practiced in education: ‘summative’ and ‘formative.’ Summative assessment involves teaching a particular subject with student testing and evaluation taking place at the end of a unit or term. Formative assessment, on the other hand, aims to assess throughout the learning process — student comprehension, academic progress, and learning needs, are evaluated during the course of a lesson or unit. The approach is considered more continuous and forward-looking, whereby adaptations to the teaching and/or learning experience can be implemented swiftly. In short, summative assessment can be considered an assessment of learning and formative assessment methods are more an assessment for learning.
To a certain extent, relying solely on summative assessment is considered a misguided educational practice. Some suggest that it could be too late to guide a learner towards correcting and/or improving their knowledge skills and understanding if they are only checked after the period of learning and not during the period of learning.
The challenge, then, is to assess in a formative manner. This takes place within a school setting through ‘monitoring’ constantly, as well as ‘documenting’ and ‘measuring’ learning – with ‘reporting’ only an outcome of these processes. The individual skill of the educator is most evident here. To pose a challenge to a group of students and then instantly ‘read’ the outcome is a key part of formative assessment. Did child A look puzzled? Did child B’s eyes light up? Did child C look disinterested? This is assessment at the very ‘front line’ that is not just interesting – it allows immediate differentiation between individual learners to be implemented.
Why do Schools Assess?
For many, this might seem an obvious question – as a ‘measuring stick’ to see where a child ‘is at’ when compared to certain standards. The reality, however, is more nuanced. In fact, three strands of purpose behind assessment can be identified when it is associated directly with ‘learning’. Educators can speak of “assessment for learning” – by using simple tools that can inform how learning is taking place (ie ‘exit cards’ where children provide feedback on their understanding at the end of a particular lesson). Educators can speak of “assessment of learning” in a more traditional sense but not necessarily in a summative approach. Moreover, and most interestingly, we can speak of “assessment as learning” that both fundamentally shifts the emphasis of assessment (from adult to child) but also promotes skills and self-management approaches that are crucial both now and long into a child’s future.
By being transparent with young people about expectations of their learning, and by actively involving them in evaluating what they have done, we as an academic community promote a culture of self-assessment that is infinitely more powerful than any standalone ‘grade’ or ‘score’ meted out at the end of a term. For a child to take stock of their own progress, and to suggest ways that they themselves can bridge the gap between where they are with their learning now, and where they are headed with their learning (in other words clearly defined learning goals) and the ‘goal’, we are significantly increasing the possibility for genuine personal progress in each child.
How do Students know they are Learning?
Children need to be aware of the skills or knowledge that they are aiming for, and they need both time and space to reflect on what they have done thus far and the ‘gap’ between the two. Teachers do not have ‘dominion’ over the assessment of a child. If anything, they should look to facilitate this assessment in the child to the extent that they can remain focused on delivering content in the most engaging way possible. Assessment moves from being passive (for the child) to an active process.
From this perspective, the matter of recording learning becomes essential. Thus, teaching staff are entrusted with providing students the tools to self-assess (eg photos, videos, learning portfolios and apps) that contribute to a formative and self-directed, style of assessment. When teacher and student have evidence before them, they can constructively discuss how improvement is going to take place.
What are the Realities of Grading?
It is important to recognize that assessment is not a secret process of children ‘aiming for’ achievement and hoping they get a good score. A school’s student body – especially a school’s student council – should fully understand the concepts outlined here, and the information needs to be shared with teachers and parents if the school is to move forward with assessment capability for students.
A culture of ‘holistic grading’ that considers a wide range of different criteria in each subject could then be promoted. Where these criteria in Math, for example, might range from ‘Knowing and Understanding’ to ‘Application in Real-life Context’, those in Languages and Literature could include ‘Analysing Language’ and ‘Organising Ideas’.
For a child to understand from where a grade has originated, and agree with its rationale, is a key part of building relationships in learning environments. Moreover, for a child to appreciate their strengths and weaknesses openly is half the challenge of education itself. Teachers would be ‘grading’ students not just on their output but their process. The final design piece, for example, might be impressive, but more impressive is the journal of progress they have kept, the constant adjustments to their approaches they’ve designed, and the insightful self-commentary they have developed. Thus, the process would be graded as much as, if not more so than, the product.
Ultimately, the best indicator of knowing if (and to what extent) a child is learning is in their own ability to reflect on and answer that question. Through proactive teaching practice and the use of technology, educational institutions can develop mechanisms for collecting evidence of learning, but that is only part of the challenge. Teachers, parents, and students themselves want to see progress – but that progress is undoubtedly best achieved and promoted through open discussion and enabling the child to be the centrepiece of that process, not merely the recipient of a grade.
At the Inter-community Zurich (ICS), our assessment practices include answering three important questions for parents. What is my child learning? How do I know my child is learning? What can I do to support my child’s learning? To arrange an appointment with our Admissions team, or to find out more about the international school of first choice in Zurich, visit our website at www.icsz.ch.