Taking Another Look at Assessment

Taking Another Look at Assessment

Brad Kelly presented Taking Another Look at Assessment at the July 2019 NSWHTA conference. Here he asks, what exactly are we assessing?

I’m probably not a lone voice by observing that assessment surely counts as one of the most stressful exercises in teaching. Many teachers I speak to feel overwhelmed by the demands of assessment and reporting. Some have lost sight of the purpose of assessment, seeing it as either an administrative burden or feeling that their school over assesses. Others are confused about where assessment comes in the teaching and learning cycle – beginning, middle or end?

Poorly designed assessment sheets and rubrics create stress for students and parents. Nearly all of us teachers have had the experience of being approached by a student from another subject to clarify an assessment; ‘What does this mean?’ Rubrics are either too vague (can’t tell the difference between an A, B or C) or too specific (allowing students to tick off tasks like three quotes, four linking phrases, etc. without demonstrating cohesive thinking) or the language too confusing (what is the difference between sophisticated and judicious?)

Then there is the jargon and teacher talk around assessment. In the staffroom there is a lot of chatter around grades, ranks, content, feedback, writing quality or parental pressure. Then there is the confusion around the nature and point of summative, formative, informal, tests, examinations and standardised testing.

I almost never hear teachers talk about outcomes

But something occurred to me a few years ago which I think accounts for a lot of the stress; I almost never hear teachers talk about outcomes. Which begs a really important question – what exactly are we assessing?

It should come as no surprise that our assessment compliance involves outcomes; what students know and can do, and how well. If we are honest, that is difficult because of the laser-like focus on content that is characteristic of our industry. Our focus is often on getting through ‘Hitler’s role in the Nazi state’ at a cracking rate rather than helping students to locate, select and organise historical evidence to support an argument – which ticks along at a much slower pace. A focus on the latter would arguably lead to greater depths of student understanding about Hitler’s role.

Is it fair to say that our heads are just not there?

We feel like slaves to dot-point lists and I think unnecessarily. We need to find a language that accurately captures what students can do. That is why the idea of clearly seeing what a student knows is so powerful. We simply don’t get that language from asking questions derived from the content list like ‘Why did Australians enlist in World War I?’ or ‘What was Hitler’s role in the Nazi state?’

It’s not about what you teach – it’s about what you can see

Anyone can create an engaging PowerPoint Presentation, worksheet, booklet or even a textbook. But the truth is learning is not won or lost at resources. When it comes to assessment, it’s not about what you can create – it’s about what you can see.

That is why I talk often about training your assessment eye.

I think taking another look at assessment starts with pasting Stage 4-6 outcomes together side by side to see a progression of learning. Let’s look-see what happens if we are trying to assess how well students can use evidence – the bread and butter of history teaching.


Stage 4 Stage 5 Stage 6
Uses evidence from sources to support historical narratives and explanations Uses relevant evidence from sources to support historical narratives, explanations and analyses of the modern world and Australia Analyses and interprets different types of sources for evidence to support an historical account or argument.


Notice a few things about the progression from Stage 4 to 5 that can at least give us a start for thinking about what we are looking for.

  1. The progression moves from using evidence (Stage 4) to using relevant evidence (Stage 5).
  2. The widening range about what students can do means from using that evidence to support narratives and explanations (Stage 4) to supporting analyses (Stage 5).
  3. The verb demands higher levels of thinking from use, support, analyses and interpretation.

Seeing this progression helps provide a path to understand student achievement – especially in classrooms where there is often a large gap between the top and bottom student. We should focus on asking what does using evidence well look like when we see it? To help you see more clearly there is a raft of supporting documentation including course performance descriptors, assessment samples and of course, staffroom discussion.

One school I presented at recently talked about the huge fights they had during the development of assessment tasks. Good!

To enter assessment via the outcome above is to ask a series of questions about evidence – about its use and relevance, about selection, about which parts are quoted and which are paraphrased, about how well they support the architecture of the argument, about how well they are integrated into a piece of writing, about the student ability to analyse a source and interpret it for usefulness or reliability and so on.

Here’s the other thing about outcomes; you are better able to discriminate between levels of achievement by assessing how well students locate, select and organise information rather than ‘looking’ for facts in a question about, for example, Hitler’s role in the Nazi state – which I argue would be very difficult to measure across a five-point scale for summative tasks.

To focus your assessment eye on outcomes is to open up a world that overlays any question or dot point. I often joke that I have only one lesson – how to locate, select and organise information, and the great majority of my preparation is about curating sources and thinking hard about what I want back from the task.

Growth over achievement is bunk… unless we know what we are measuring

Since growth over achievement is likely to become the next big hit in our schools (if Gonski v2 and the preliminary Masters review are any indication of future directions) I think the most powerful factor in improving assessment is what the teacher can ‘see’ and articulate success along a progression of learning.

But would you agree that without refocusing our assessment on outcomes and how they track the development of what a student can do over time, this can be potentially very stressful?

We get so buried in discussions and debates about the nature of formative and summative assessment and I suspect they are irrelevant. What good is having the best assessment tools and practices if the teacher can’t ‘see’ what great use of evidence looks like in a classroom where there are huge ability gaps that straddle stages? All the two-stars-and-a-wish or no-hands-up in the world are not going to help the teacher who cannot clearly ‘see.’

It all comes back to the fundamental question. What, exactly are we assessing?

If we’re not sure, it’s time to take another look at assessment.


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