For Scottish teachers implementing Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), assessment is a major dilemma. The current mantra is that teachers are professionals whose judgements should be trusted; local authorities and others, however, are increasingly prescriptive about assessment and reporting.
In particular, the vexed issue of reporting at the transition stage between primary and secondary, always a source of divisive debate, is challenging teachers in both sectors.
Professor Louise Hayward of Glasgow University recently spoke at a seminar on assessment at St George’s School in Edinburgh. At least some of her conclusions should reassure the profession.
First, Prof Hayward challenged the presumption that we raise attainment by frequent testing. We would fatten a pig by feeding it, not by frequently weighing it. The key to increasing attainment is better teaching, not more testing. The system needs brought into alignment with reality. If we wish to prioritise effective teaching we require only as much assessment as assists that process.
There is, Prof Hayward suggests, much innovative practice in supporting transition in Scotland. What is not required is a battery of test results passed from the primary to the secondary. Detailed discursive reports are also of little practical value.
Real interaction between P7 and S1 teachers will be at the core of developing good practice. Regular, mutual visits by teachers from each sector to the other, induction visits over the length of P7, pupil-created folios of work illustrating levels attained and carried between the schools – all of these can support meaningful understanding of attainment and individual needs.
It will also have to be understood, at the transition stage and elsewhere, that learners can meet the requirement for a particular level in many different ways and a race through end-of-unit assessments is of limited usefulness.
The CfE Experiences and Outcomes provide the criteria by which professional judgements must be made on achievement of a particular level. These are broadly based criteria, assuming two to three years to progress from one level to the next. Because these levels are well spread, they are not designed for regular tests, nor to illustrate incremental gain in regular reports to parents.
Yet that is one of the dilemmas. Parents are often mesmerised by the numbers and letters on report sheets. They can attach far more meaning to these than can be properly inferred from them. Teachers require to develop more meaningful, descriptive reports, combining formative assessment and sound professional judgements.
Social moderation, Prof Hayward insists, is at the heart of the assessment process. Examples of learners’ work, annotated by teachers, peers and the learners themselves, should be a normal and permanent part of school life.
Assessment is centrally however about sharing useful information about learners’ progress and not merely about the achievement of CfE levels.
Similarly teachers require to treat with caution the concepts of “developing”, “consolidating” and “secure”, originally developed as advice for reporting but now being given prescriptive status by some local authorities.
The only purpose in insisting on reporting following such formats is to facilitate the gathering of statistics, but the gathering of statistics is never the primary purpose of assessment.
Prof Hayward pleads for a more holistic approach to assessment. If that is to be implemented however, she insists herself that there will be a need to prioritise, to stop doing some things in order to create the time and energy to do the things that are vital – to focus on the assessments which will have the greatest impact on young people’s learning.
The Scottish government, the inspectorate and the local authorities are all still some way from recognising that difficult truth.
Alex Wood has been a teacher for 38 years. Prior to his recent retirement he was headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre in Edinburgh. He is currently an associate with the Scottish Centre for Studies in School Administration at Edinburgh University.