December 17

Assessment….best practice or common practice?

Last day of term. Is it more scary or less than the first?

For the past term, I have been working with a team of people to redesign learning for year 7 from scratch. Baking a cake from scratch is supposed to be harder than the packet mix, and although in real life, I am not much of a baker, and would prefer to stay with the packet mix, in my job, I am the person that goes back and deletes everything every year and starts again. As the Stage 4 team at St Luke’s Catholic College, we are starting pretty much from scratch in terms of the learning that exists in the secondary school. Although the call of a school without history was strong, I don’t think I realised initially how much we actually needed to discuss….to pull apart what was common practice in schools and to question why we do the things that we do. It is amazing how much of what we do is rooted in common practice and not fact, best practice,  research or policy, but become evolutions of one person’s interpretation of the last person’s ideas.

We do have existing constraints at St Luke’s: the syllabus, ideas that the school has already engaged with such as the 6 pillars, ideas around reporting, assessment and marks. My biggest challenge for my data-loving brain in the past term was when our principal suggested that our assessment policy would be no marks, no grades until we had to. 

I’ve been lucky enough for most of my teaching career to be in environments that have been very innovative. Each school more so than the last. And so much of what we hear about in schools now (post-Hattie) is the power of feedback to improve learning, and the concern of teachers that we spend so much time on feedback, and students see the mark or grade and forget the feedback. I saw the immense potential effect on student learning if it was done right. It still scared me.

But, as we teach our students, I tried to approach the idea with an innovator’s mindset. We can’t possibly do this became…how can we do this? So, I turned to NESA (and about 6 books on assessment)  to look at what they say about assessment. What I found was that their assessment procedures point more towards portfolio-based assessment than they do towards marks and grades, particularly in the junior years of year 7 and 8.

In New South Wales, standards referenced assessment links the achievement of students to specified standards, through evidence collected from a number and variety of activities and from observations over time, and involves teachers gathering evidence of student achievement formally and informally, to make judgements and to facilitate and monitor students’ progress.

The purpose of assessment is to gather valid, reliable and useful information about student learning in order to monitor student achievement in relation to outcomes, guide future teaching and learning opportunities and provide ongoing feedback to students to improve learning.

NSW syllabuses and support materials promote an integrated approach to teaching, learning and assessment. Students’ content knowledge will be assessed using individual samples of work completed during the course of a unit of work, measured against NESA’s Common Grade Scale.   My biggest learning this term has been to go back to the common grade scale, and to look at how it actually reflected what schools are trying to do across our diocese….go from surface to deep, to transfer knowledge and skills (based on the work of Malcom McDowell


The focus on an understanding of curriculum content is for students to be able to readily and independently apply, not just recount, the extensive knowledge and understanding that they have learnt within the course of study. Students who are achieving to a high level will be using a high level of competence in processes and skills and can apply these skills to new situations.

This documentation reflects and enhances the focus on the skills and capabilities of St Luke’s 6 pillars, which focus on social and enterprise skills. These 6 pillars are strongly linked with the outcomes of Stage 3 and 4 syllabus outcomes in being capabilities necessary to build learning skills.  Students will be provided feedback at different points progressively through a unit of work in ways that facilitate improvement in being able to demonstrate skills relevant to learning.

This assessment style involves students and teachers discussing for each student what evidence is provided to demonstrate their achievement of skills and content. Students will be guided through a process of collecting this evidence in a portfolio of learning and reflecting on this evidence of learning which will be utilised in student-led conferences.   Students will also be supported through processes to monitor their own learning, ask questions and use a range of strategies to decide what they know and can do, and how to use assessment information to guide new learning.

Students will be provided with the pillars and outcomes for each unit of work that are directly taught and the focus of the unit as well as criteria for the overall unit of work.  Students will be guided through a process where they are supported through their selection of work to present for assessment.  The focus of the work of assessment must be students moving forward in their learning by providing specific feedback regularly. Students may choose to refine their work after feedback and teachers should encourage this mastery approach, balancing the needs of the student and their other subjects.

Students will select samples of their work that they feel best meets the outcomes provided. They will reflect on their work and explain why they think it meets this standard on a reflection sheet. Students will receive teacher feedback on this draft, and then upload the sample of work, along with the typed up reflection on their portfolio website (Google Sites).  This process will happen throughout the unit of work. Teachers will maintain samples for each student for later reference.  Teachers will allocate grades for each of the outcomes (both school-based and subject outcomes) assessed in this unit, based on where the samples of work fit within the common grade scale.  This portfolio website, individualised for each student, should then host samples of work across the stage and should show improvement in their learning across the stage and will be the focus of student-led conferences at least twice a year.