Assessment of Student Growth: a way forward for the future?

Dr David Bird, the school’s archivist, recently showed me some school reports from the 1940s.  The reports were brief to the point of being blunt.  The student received a percentage score and his rank in the class; feedback from the teacher was reduced to a terse, “A good term’s work”.

Reporting on student performance has come a long way since then, but some things have not changed: students are still graded according to a perception of where the average student of their year level should be.  But what of the student who starts the year already well ahead of that standard - does that mean they can coast for a year?  Or the student who starts well below - will their progress not be acknowledged, no matter how hard they work?

This situation led Professor Geoff Masters, CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research (familiar to many CGS families: it is located near Camberwell railway station) to work on the concept of assessing students on the growth they are able to achieve over a period of time, not on how well they match a generic standard.  He was spurred in part by Australia’s overall poor record in driving and encouraging our best and brightest; national testing shows an alarming level of students coasting, especially as they reach Senior School.

Professor Masters’ idea is simple: identify where a student is in their learning at a particular time, and then check to see where they’ve got to in six months or a year later: the difference is the growth.  This makes it easy to see - and celebrate - the student who has started well below his peers, but worked hard and made enormous progress, as well as the student who started on the top of his cohort but only made minimal progress in the same time.  In the old system, the first student might get a D and the second an A - but these letter grades hide the growth each one has made.

There are strong benefits to this new approach.  It makes it easier to identify students who are struggling, and those who have a sudden drop (or jump) in performance; it works to remind all students that they can make progress, even those who might have already pigeon-holed themselves as being a hopeless student; and it serves to keep high performing students on their toes. 

Let’s compare this to the situation of a sports coach giving runners feedback after a race.  The coach could say “you were in the back of the pack in that race,” (the equivalent of giving the student’s rank in the cohort) or “you’ve failed - you ran slower than the expectations for a runner your age.” Or the coach might say, “you’ve shaved two seconds off your previous personal best”.  Which one is more likely to lead to improved performance in the future?

Professor Masters’ ideas have now reached the mainstream.  The recent Gonski Report (Department of Education and Training, 2018) listed as the first priority for Australian education “Deliver at least one year’s growth in learning for every student every year”.  The report elaborated on this:

To achieve this shift to growth, the Review Panel believes it is essential to move from a year-based curriculum to a curriculum expressed as learning progressions independent of year or age. Underpinning this, teachers must be given practical support by creating an online, formative assessment tool to help diagnose a student’s current level of knowledge, skill and understanding, to identify the next steps in learning to achieve the next stage in growth, and to track student progress over time against a typical development trajectory. (p. x)

As the Gonski panel noted, the challenge is to develop a “typical development trajectory” for learning in every subject - a kind of roadmap for student learning.  This is something the education profession is now grappling with. 

At CGS, we have been quietly following the idea of growth assessment for a number of years, ever since Professor Masters’ first article on the topic, and are well ahead of most schools in our thinking (we are not yet at the implementation stage).  Mr Scott Wyatt, Deputy Head of Middle School, and I have developed models and are testing them in different situations.  In doing this we have learnt a number of important lessons:

•    Students don’t always learn in a linear fashion, despite what teachers (and textbook writers) might want.  They learn in ways that are often highly individual and any roadmap must be able to cope with this.

•    Students don’t just “get” a concept - there are shades of comprehension and students forget things and also pick new things up.  The situation is always dynamic.

•    Some subjects are made up of hundreds of small units of knowledge (like a language, or Maths), while others are made up of understanding that varies not by quantity but by sophistication (like English), and one style of roadmap might not fit both.

•    Teachers need to have a roadmap of what learning progression in their subject looks like that is detailed and explicit; there needs to be a consensus among the teachers about what this roadmap means.

This method of assessment has consequences for teaching and learning as well.  If the assessment helps pinpoint exactly what the student needs to focus on in order to improve, then the teacher needs to be ready to act on that.  Teachers will need to allow time in their programme for students to address the individual areas they need to work on - what I call a WOMOS period (“Working On My Own Stuff”).  There needs to be a bank of aids for students - explanatory videos, exercises, etc - ready to be accessed so that students can address the areas they need to work on.  It also means that teachers need to be ready for students in the one class to be working at a range of different levels (but most teachers are already adept at this).

So it may be that in the future, an assessment will be more like the GPS map that so many of us are familiar with on our phones.  We - the teacher, student and parent - will track where the student is now on the roadmap, and where they want to get to; we will be able to see a number of different routes, and choose the one that works best for the individual student; we will see where there is congestion ahead, what the potential obstacles are, and work out a plan to get around them, so that the student can get to their desired destination.

Dr John Tuckfield,
Director of the Murdoch Centre for Educational Research and Innovation

A full set of references is available from the author.