The Assessment and Progression Group Reports Back
Strand 1 of the curriculum design process was focused on ‘strategic design’. Pioneer Schools were assigned to one of four working groups: Assessment and Progression; Cross-curriculum Responsibilities; Enrichment and Experiences; and Welsh Dimension, International Perspective and Wider Skills. The intention was for the groups to work with expert advisors to address the ‘big questions’ of overall curriculum design. The ‘interim reports’ from the working groups were published at the end of March 2017 (though work began on Strand 2 of the design process in January). In what follows we’ll be looking at the Assessment and Progression group’s report, as it is most relevant to our focus here.
The report from the Assessment and Progression working group outlines ‘principles of assessment and progression for the new curriculum and assessment arrangements’. In particular, they focussed on proposals relating to Recommendation 37 in Successful Futures – that ‘Assessment arrangements should give priority to their formative role in teaching and learning’. The paper summarises the initial findings of the group and their implications for the design and development of the AoLEs. It begins with an explanation of formative assessment and the benefits it offers, before exploring how it can be embedded in the new curriculum. The final section of the paper summarises the development process that produced the report.
The working group makes only a few general recommendations for curriculum design, instead focusing more on embedding formative classroom practices through Initial Teacher Education and Training (ITET) and CPD, school leadership and appropriate accountability measures.
Formative and Summative Assessment in Harmony?
Section 1 of the interim report underscores Donaldson’s emphasis on the interrelation of pedagogy and assessment, stating that a ‘strong and comprehensive understanding of effective assessment in our schools needs to be at the heart of effective pedagogy’. The report foregrounds formative assessment practice, asserting that summative assessment should be subservient to it. It describes this in terms of bringing formative and summative assessment ‘into harmony’, citing the OECD’s concerns about the distortions that occur when accountability is the primary driver of assessment policy. Following Professor Wynne Harlen’s view that summative assessment should be based on evidence elicited from formative processes, the report argues that education policy should ‘view assessment as a formative process which may at points provide summative data that helps move the learner forward’.
Whilst Successful Futures acknowledges the same assessment can be used formatively or summatively, Donaldson clearly explains how the characteristics of formative and summative assessments differ when they are effectively tailored to their respective outcomes. It is perhaps worth questioning how the Assessment and Progression group’s account of the nature of their interrelatedness is compatible with his proposal that schools should employ a wider range of assessment techniques according to their purpose. As Daisy Christodoulou writes:
It may be possible to make some formative inferences from assessments that have been designed for summative purposes, but they will be limited and imperfect in comparison to assessments that have been designed specifically for formative purposes. Similarly, trying to make summative inferences from tasks that have been designed for formative use is hard to do reliably without sacrificing the flexibility and responsiveness of such tasks.
Whilst it’s understandable that the working group should want to ensure summative assessment isn’t driven by an accountability regime, it’s questionable whether it could be entirely subsumed by formative practices. This seems strategically unlikely in light of the different functions Donaldson and Christodoulou ascribe.
A Future for Data-Tracking?
The report makes a number of recommendations for the development of the AoLEs in Section 1, including the following:
3. All progression statements to be framed in qualitative not quantitate statements which must be accessible to children, teachers and parents. This will ensure the focus for assessment remains formative with learning made ‘visible’ promoting self and peer assessment.
4. Progression statements in both AoLEs and additional frameworks should reflect the ‘road map’ approach described in successful future [sic], they should not be ‘universal expectations of the performance of all children and young people at fixed points.’ (Recommendation 14). Subsequently they should be written as a continuum of skills rather than being age group specific.
5. In addition, these Progression Steps are not set markers at which schools should formally assess all pupils. It is not necessary, nor desirable, to undertake the wholesale, summative assessment of classes or cohorts of pupils at these particular points.
The third section of the report also proposes that:
The proposals above appear to indicate a trajectory away from using assessment data to track pupil progress, not dissimilar to that witnessed in England. However, whilst recommendations 3-5 all reflect aspects of Donaldson’s proposals, there are instances in Successful Futures that could be in tension with these ideas. For example:
Teachers and leaders at all levels need regular information from the assessment recording system to track the progress of individuals and groups of children and young people.
The OECD sees a number of apparent strengths in the current accountability arrangements in Wales… [including] the availability of comprehensive performance data. An additional strength of the system is that the performance data is set in context in that it compares performance with similar schools. The Review’s proposals aim to build on these strengths.
Assessment data must, of course, inform broader evaluations of how well a school is serving its children and young people.
Parents and carers need regular information to find out how well their children are doing and show how they can support them in improving their learning. The Achievement Outcomes and Progression Steps will provide the context for this reporting…
Teachers need to have straightforward ways of tracking individual children and young people’s progress in ways that show progress over time and across the curriculum…
This tension is arguably unresolved within the Donaldson report itself. On the one hand the ‘Achievement Outcomes… have been set deliberately at three-yearly intervals so as to allow teachers to plan and assess learning without constant reference to externally determined criteria’, whereas on the other hand they’re expected to regularly report to parents with reference to the Achievement Outcomes. It could be argued that these potentially conflicting sentiments support Philip Dixon’s concern that people can find their preferences affirmed in Successful Futures, regardless of which perspective they most identify with.
Nowhere in the Donaldson Report is the current practice of aggregating teacher assessment data to track progress questioned as directly as in the principles from Section 3 of the Assessment and Progression group’s report quoted earlier. However, whilst these statements appear in the summary of the group’s recommendations published in the January 2017 edition of the ‘Strategic Stakeholder Newsletter’, in the actual report itself (also released to schools in January) they are prefaced with an illuminating caveat – namely that they record the ‘early thinking’ of the group and have been included ‘for completion’. It seems likely that the proposals from Section 1 are intended to reflect the more mediating approach advanced by Donaldson, thus mitigating the fervour of their early proposals. The latter are arguably more reflective of the English campaign against national curriculum levels. This revisionary pattern can be seen elsewhere in the report, where strong statements in Section 3 such as ‘No extra assessment frameworks will exist. It isn’t useful to have an assessment framework, an AoLE framework plus a DCF and an LNF and a wider skills framework’ are redacted to ‘Additional frameworks sitting outside the AoLE should be kept to a minimum…’ in Section 1 of the report.
It may have been the case that in the earlier stages of Strand 1, some of the group sought to address the drawbacks associated with best-fit assessment using levels (see Part 2 of this series for more detail) by advocating a full-scale move away from this model. Yet the final proposals are considerably more reserved, perhaps because the Progression Steps/Achievement Outcomes are yet to take shape. In the final analysis the report more or less reaffirms Donaldson’s original specification, leaving the question as to precisely how the new arrangements will mitigate against the distorting tendencies of best-fit models largely unanswered.
A Learning Culture
Section 2 of the working group’s report focuses on how formative assessment can be embedded in teaching and learning. The model proposed by the group is represented by the following infographic:
At the heart of the group’s proposals is the idea of cultivating a ‘learning culture’ that prioritises formative assessment and has a ‘common language and understanding… for all stakeholders in education including parents, pupils and policy makers’. The report stresses the role ITET has to play in embedding AfL principles as the foundation of an effective learning culture. A recent OECD report related how the practitioners interviewed had difficulty articulating the AfL programme in their school. Responding to this the working group affirms the OECD’s own proposed model for creating a learning culture that is oriented toward cultivating an effective ‘disposition of mind’, as depicted below:
The framework puts considerable emphasis on metacognition, or ‘learning to learn’. This is a key aspect of Donaldson’s 12 Pedagogical Principles and aligns with Guy Claxton’s framework for ‘Building Learning Power’. The emphasis placed on this model by the working group may confirm a more skills-based approach (as outlined in Part 1 of this series) as the trajectory for Successful Futures’ implementation, though this isn’t spelt out. Whilst Section 2 of the report emphasises the need to reflect the importance of formative assessment in the design of the new curriculum, it doesn’t explain how this will be achieved.
In summary, the working group’s report strikes an encouraging tone and adds strategic weight to some of Donaldson’s proposals on assessment, though it falls short of offering any concrete guidelines for shaping the Progression Steps/Achievement Outcomes. Precisely how the process of their development will correlate with that of the AoLEs remains to be seen.
The Road Ahead
Our engagement with Successful Futures in this blog series has enabled us to situate Professor Donaldson’s proposals within the broader landscape of curriculum and assessment theory. Whilst it hasn’t yielded a concrete picture of how the new curriculum will develop, it has brought the questions around implementation into sharper relief. With Strand 2 of the curriculum development underway, the AoLEs are now taking shape and could be available in draft as early as June this year.
Kirsty Williams has promised that the Welsh Government’s ‘refreshed’ version of their strategic implementation plan – A Curriculum for Wales, A Curriculum for Life – will appear by the end of spring. We will report back when it’s published, highlighting the key developments. Here at the Assessment Foundation we talk with Pioneer Schools on a daily basis, so we'll also share some of their experiences as to how work is progressing 'on the ground'.