Developing your assessment skills

Teacher puts three questions to Dr Sandy Heldsinger and Rob Hassell on the topic of assessment.

We'll start with a question you're both often asked - Why does assessment seem so hard?

Rob Hassell: I have always ‘known' when a student has learnt a particular skill, concept or understanding that I have either taught the class or that a student has learnt. An example of the latter is when a student understands the concept of zero in Mathematics. This has not always happened when I am teaching students integers. However, the knowledge that zero is an arbitrary point on a scale that represents the absence of value, which was invented by men, is critical to understanding mathematics and particularly, algebra. When a student has grasped this concept mathematics takes on new meaning; it still may not be enjoyable, but it does make ‘more sense'.

The hard question for me, as a teacher, is how do I record this learning and how do I show the impact of my teaching?

Sandy Heldsinger: Assessment makes heavy demands on teachers' content and pedagogical knowledge and, for this reason, it is hard. I agree with your point Rob that knowing how to record judgements and show growth in learning is hard. But, I think you are underestimating the depth of the knowledge and expertise you bring to your assessments. You know when a student understands the concept of zero, because you not only understand the concept itself but also know what assessment tasks or activities to use to find out if students know the concept; and you know how to set up the tasks so that students reveal their misconceptions and underdeveloped understandings.

How can teachers develop their assessment skills?

RH: The first step is that you must want to. My focus is always on improving student learning; not on teaching the curriculum. This means, as Professor Geoff Masters said his Teacher article Rethinking formative and summative assessment, you must 'recognise that the essential purpose of assessment in education is to establish and understand where students are in an aspect of their learning at the time of assessment. This usually means inferring what they know, understand, and can do from observations of their performances and work'.

From what I understand about a student's learning from an assessment, I take the next teaching steps. This always leads me back to the curriculum and may result in re-teaching, reviewing, re-conceptualising or jumping ahead!

The assessment guides me to the next step; I cannot pre-plan it. Hence, I never planned lessons more than one week ahead. But I did have annual scope and sequence plans and units of work which would be constantly revised as the year progressed. I have never taught the same thing twice!

SH: I have often heard you describe the way you work and I would summarise it as: observing students very closely; listening carefully to what they say; and analysing their answers on written assignments to glean information about where they are in their learning.

As you do this you are using their work to reveal how learning is happening; what they understand and how they are building on the products from prior learning to create new learning. You adapt your teaching based on your evaluation of their work and thus become a more effective teacher.

Some of the most rewarding collaborative assessment work that I have done with teachers is to sit down and analyse students' work. We take samples that represent the range of ability, order them from the least to the most able and then use the samples to identify and describe the features of development. We learn so much about student learning during this process and in turn we increase our curriculum and pedagogical knowledge as well as our assessment knowledge.

I do not think teachers develop their assessment skills when they use curriculum documents as their starting point. Curriculum documents comprise of broad descriptions of students' learning. Teachers need to practice analysing student work in detail so they can identify what a student needs to learn tomorrow or next week.

Finally, what data should teachers use to evaluate their teaching?

RH: My answer this question is implicit in my answers to the other questions. In every unit of work and, to some degree, in every lesson, I want data so that I can evaluate the impact of my teaching.

SH: It's important that we explain what we mean when we use the word 'data'. A student's answer to a question in a lesson is data, as is a piece of writing that the student submits. The close analysis of the student's work provides insights into whether teaching has been successful, and it is important that this data is valued in schools.

More broadly, I think schools should only use standardised tests where the data is very easily interpreted by teachers and the limitations of the data are readily apparent. If the data are not used to inform and refine teaching programs, then they are of little use.

Dr Sandy Heldsinger and Rob Hassell will be running a two day workshop in Perth (on February 27 and April 2) on Collaborative uses for student data. For more information, click on the link.

About the interviewees:

Dr Sandy Heldsinger has wide-ranging applied and theoretical experience in educational assessment and in particular she has led the development of Brightpath. This educational assessment software allows teachers to compare their students' work to calibrated exemplars to arrive at a scaled score. Sandy co-authored What Teachers Need to Know about Assessment and Reporting, published by ACER.

Rob Hassell is an Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) Research Fellow based in the Perth Office. He has more than 40 years of school leadership and teaching experience in government and independent schools in Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia and in International Schools in the Philippines, Indonesia, China and Western Australia. Rob's abiding professional interests are assessment of student learning, including collaborative data analysis and discussion and the resulting school improvement. Rob is an ACER School Improvement Consultant.

How are you using data to inform your teaching?

Do you know where your students are in their learning and what the next steps are?

How often do you work with colleagues to carry out collaborative assessments?