The changing face of assessment

How do teachers assess the general capabilities in the Australian Curriculum, and what does that mean for how they teach?

General capabilities, soft skills, 21st century skills; the notion of including ‘skills for life’ in the Australian curriculum is not a new one. But it is, perhaps, more embedded than ever.

The Australian Curriculum, which is now ten years old, specifies seven general capabilities: digital capability, critical and creative thinking, literacy, numeracy, ethical understanding, intercultural understanding and personal and social capability.

There is widespread agreement among educators about their importance, with last year’s Gonski 2.0 report recommending strengthening how the general capabilities are taught, assessed and reported.

But that is easier said than done. Just how do you go about teaching and assessing ethical understanding?

Associate Professor Sandra Milligan, who leads the Assessment Research Centre in the University of Melbourne’s Graduate School of Education, points out that teachers have had to adjust to huge changes over the past two decades.

The curriculum has shifted from a primary focus on content, to also incorporating deep knowledge, general capabilities, ‘know how’, attitudes, value and beliefs, and finally the ability to learn independently.

“If you’re a teacher and you graduated 20 years ago, you more or less used to teach to the textbook,” she says.

“That’s all changing. Knowledge is changing so quickly that if you just teach what there is to know, it may rapidly become obsolete. What’s important today may not be as important tomorrow.”

Assessment as a driver of change

The changes in the curriculum are welcome and important, says Dr Milligan. But it is nevertheless challenging for teachers to implement this very new concept of education.

“The catch is that many teachers struggle to teach the curriculum in its entirety– it’s very complicated, it’s very sophisticated,” she says. “And that means they need to find new ways to assess their students, too.”

The starting point for schools implementing the new capabilities in the curriculum is assessment, she says. And while that might seem like putting the cart before the horse, assessment is important “because what is assessed is taught”.

But assessment today is becoming very different from the traditional pen-and-paper exam.

“There’s no point in having a written examination on collaborative problem solving,” says Dr Milligan. Instead, with her colleagues at the research centre, she is developing “common-sense, practical, helpful assessment tools that teachers can use”.

These include tools that help teachers collect evidence from a variety of sources, such as their own observations, students’ self-assessment, peer assessment and digital analytics. Taken together, this information can help teachers make a judgement about where a student is on a progression of learning.

“The core notion underpinning this approach is that students gradually develop, over time, progressing from less expert to more expert” she says.

“When teachers know how to determine where each student is at on their progress through these levels of expertise, they can provide what they need to go on to their next step, or record where they’re up to.”

A new way of teaching

If this all sounds like a big shift in how we deliver education, that’s because it is; Dr Milligan thinks it takes around ten years to fully adapt to the changes required. And it requires a whole-of-school approach.

“If a teacher tries to include the additional competencies on top of what they’re already doing, they risk feeling overwhelmed, because it’s too much work,” she says. “It really represents a change in teaching methods.”

The first major requirement for this to work is thinning down the curriculum to include less content, something that is already being addressed by government agencies like the Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority.

Dr Milligan uses secondary chemistry – which she used to teach – as an example.

“Instead of drilling all the formulae and the various chemical procedures and so on, now   the content gets stripped down and the focus is on the basic building blocks of knowledge, but also the intellectual skills and key understandings you need to be a good chemist,” she says.

Classroom activities become much more about the application of knowledge, rather than just its acquisition, with students learning for themselves, teaching each other, and teachers using a wider repertoire of teaching methods, and less didactic methods.

In terms of assessment, teachers consider how each student is doing across the range of competencies in the curriculum, gathering information through a wide range of sources.

In this spirit, in some schools, at the end of term students receive a profile that shows what they have mastered, and where there is room for improvement, covering areas like content knowledge and communication.

The traditional grade or score, which says nothing much about precisely what is known and not known, becomes obsolete.

The importance of rubrics

Rubrics have become an important tool to help teachers assess their students’ progress. They can be used for any competency in the curriculum, from science understanding or literacy to intercultural understanding, setting out behavioural indicators for each stage in the progression of expertise.

This is not a new concept for literacy and numeracy areas, but rubrics are increasingly being used for general capabilities, too.

Dr Milligan uses the example of collaborative problem solving.

“As little kids, the focus is on sharing, and by the time they get to Grade 1 they ought to have learned to share in the sandpit,” she says.

“By Grade 6 they should be able to work together in teams to solve a practical problem without being at each other’s throats or excluding some kids. And at the top, they should be able to plan and execute complex tasks in teams.”

Specifying the behaviours to look for at each level helps teachers plan appropriate classroom activities and assess where each student is up to.

“As students progress, assessments are not just based on the teacher’s judgements but also students’ own judgements, their peer’s judgements and sometimes other people’s judgements – like the person supervising them on a work experience placement,” she says.

“In that sense, the way we assess students’ performance becomes much more like it is in a workplace – in real life.”

Dr Milligan says that, while the changes teachers are seeing are big, she is confident most of them can see the benefits.

“The teachers I talk to want to change, they want to give their students these opportunities,” she says.

“And if they can assess the new competencies, they can generally teach them. It’s up to us to help them do that.”

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