Published on: 08 Mar 2018

This new curriculum will require a new approach to assessment generally. Assessment will focus more on helping learners to understand how they are performing and what they need to do next

Raising school standards in Wales

By Robin Hughes, Consultant

Raising school standards was the main theme of a recent Policy Forum for Wales conference in Cardiff that was well attended by education ministers, policy makers and others, including contributions in plenary by GL Assessment.

Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Education, Kirsty Williams AM, gave a keynote and set out the context for a lively discussion. She reminded delegates of the key points in the broad programme of reform that’s underway in Wales.

Central to the reform is, of course, a new curriculum - Successful Futures. This is in development with school practitioners working together to flesh out a broad framework set out by Professor Graham Donaldson.

Ms Williams said, “In delivering our new transformational curriculum, we will need to focus on the following four key enabling objectives: developing a high-quality education profession; inspirational leaders working collaboratively to raise standards; strong and inclusive schools committed to excellence, equity and wellbeing; and robust assessment, evaluation and accountability arrangements supporting a self-improving system.”

Assessment and accountability emerged as key concerns for delegates as they responded to presentations given by representatives from HEI teacher training, teacher union and school improvement agencies. But, as assessment and accountability are often linked, the distinction can get fuzzy.

Assessments of learning produce outcomes. Because they are thought easy to measure, they are often used to create performance measures by which schools can be made accountable. If accountability is high stakes, accountability becomes the dominant concern - it leads to a chase for outcomes.

Teaching to the test can have significant effects on learning: lowering expectations by preparing students to achieve well enough for accountability’s sake but not to their potential; narrowing the curriculum by restricting pupils to what they score well in.

This analysis is well known. It featured in the debate that informed the development of the emerging new Welsh curriculum.

Welsh reforms have an explicit intention. This new curriculum, it is said, will require a new approach to assessment generally. Assessment will focus more on helping learners to understand how they are performing and what they need to do next. Teachers will be encouraged to adopt assessment for learning practice. Assessment of learning by external examination will be made less intrusive by being just one of a number of accountability measures.

The key question is how to achieve this better balance between accountability and assessment, and three key challenges were identified.

First, it is essential that teachers get support to engage with the new focus on assessment for learning. When SATs were withdrawn in Wales several years ago, it was not accompanied by a well-resourced national programme to support teacher-based assessment, even though this was recommended by the group that proposed the withdrawal at the time. Teacher-based assessment needs practitioners that are capable, consistent and confident in assessment.

Second, external summative assessments of learning should evolve so that they are a fair assessment of the new curriculum. It is simply unfair on practitioners and pupils to have GCSEs that test knowledge if the curriculum is driven by a focus on developing skills. Only when this is achieved can performance in such assessments be a legitimate part of a broad raft of accountability measures.

Third, the discussion on reforming assessment and accountability in Wales would benefit from being open and inclusive. Many are keen to see more opportunities for organisations with relevant expertise in assessment, and who have experience of working with practitioners at times of great change, to contribute. This engagement, learning from experience and taking from the best that’s available, could be key to ensuring the success of this reform.

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