Assessment Focus Group

Back at the beginning of 2015 I established an assessment focus group at the College. It existed for less than a year and was part of a long term strategy around creating accelerator networks to overcome static and entrenched ways of thinking. By-passing the traditional hierarchy, it attempted to create agency and a more responsive and distributed platform for our staff to contribute to the future direction of the school.

I put out a call for expressions of interest via email and let participants know that we would be meeting twice a term for twelve months. I was looking for representation from each of our Junior, Middle and Senior schools and got 17 members – usually I would keep focus groups much smaller than this but I wanted to get as many people from each of the three schools involved as I could. The purpose was to create a space for dialogue that moved beyond using the terms assessment, reporting and grading interchangeably, and to change the student culture of anxiety about performance, to one of curiousity about what intellectual journey might lay before them. It took a great deal of effort and re-focusing to ensure that conversations remained about assessment as they inevitably (almost inexorably) drifted towards grading or reporting.

We workshopped ideas. People contributed research articles or blogs for discussion. Sub-committees formed and visited other schools. We looked at our current assessment profile across the College. And best of all, after some vigorous debate and discussion, we created actions that led to the creation and introduction of new policies and practices.

I recently found the following summary of one of our focus group meetings.

Can we rethink the basic tenets of teaching and learning and evaluate what students have done in a manner more consistent with our Vision for Learning? This is the question that has driven the discussion of the assessment focus group.

Our most superficial concerns have usually involved the practicalities of how to grade students’ work. Do we use a 5 point scale? A 6 point scale? What are the grade cut-offs? Do we use a normative or criterion referenced approach? We often put emphasis on how to detect plagiarism, rather than focusing on creating better assessments. This focus reinforces and reproduces the traditional paradigm of “test, grade, test, grade” and as a result many students become conditioned to this routine. Students then only engage in learning to a certain extent. They learn not deeply, but deep enough in order to learn how to play the game of assessment that is in front of them. Worse still, this paradigm can be damaging for many students as it reinforces self-narrative and familial discourse such as “I’m no good at maths.”

The discussions and workshops throughout our focus group meetings have attempted to move beyond this. Here we have debated and argued about the importance and necessity of allocating students a grade at every opportunity. We have debated the difference between a student in Year 1 and a student in Year 9. We unpacked the difference between assessment, feedback, grading and reporting. We workshopped alternative methods of assessment in order to provide a more meaningful approach that includes portfolios and a more formative focus on student understanding and progress.

After several meetings, almost unanimously the group recommendation is that:

Grades are only given to students on end of semester reports (EL-10) supported by a consistent ongoing online reporting/feedback/progress system, further supported by digital portfolios. In this case, ongoing reporting replaces end of semester reports.

This was a nice find as I clean up the files on my old laptop and a chance for me to reflect on how far we have come on this journey. This group did some great work and contributed to a more diverse assessment portfolio across the College, the introduction of new ongoing reporting platform and the introduction of a new College-wide assessment policy that I include below. I actually believe the policy is an exemplar policy because it is concise and underpinning it is the fact that we trust the professionals in our workplace to enact it in a way that is relevant to their area.

Get in touch if you would like to know more.

Assessment Policy

Purpose
The primary purpose of assessment is to help improve student learning. This process should develop students’ capacity to reflect on their learning and to assist their progress towards becoming independent learners. A secondary purpose of assessment is to provide teachers and parents with feedback about teaching and learning practices.

Policy Statement
The Geelong College assessment policy is informed by research and best practice. There is an expectation that discipline areas will draw on assessment research relevant to their field to underpin how this policy is implemented.

The statements below outline the principles of assessment at the College.

  1. Assessment must reflect the values of the College
  2. Assessment practices should be consistent with the College’s Vision for Learning, including a range of formative, summative, self and peer assessment strategies.
  3. Assessment practices must be conducted and undertaken ethically and with honesty and integrity by staff and students.
  4. An appropriate and diverse assessment portfolio in and across each subject area should demonstrate an articulation and application of knowledge and understanding, skills and competencies.
  5. The design of any assessment should take into account the requirement for timely, meaningful and constructive feedback to be given to students on their assessments.
  6. Assessment practices and processes must be continuously monitored for quality assurance and improvement purposes.
  7. It is expected that assessment tasks are assessed with clear expectations and this can include normative and criterion-referenced approaches.

Responsibility for implementation
Director of Teaching and Learning
Heads of School
Deputy Heads of School
Heads of Department
Curriculum Coordinators

Relevant policies
Reporting
Grading
Vision for Learning