The importance of formative assessment, and the place for it in our schools

The importance of formative assessment, and the place for it in our schools

With September marking Basic Education and Literacy Month, there is a brighter spotlight on what schools are doing to lift the achievement of Australian students in this all-important area.

The recent release of the 2023 NAPLAN report found nearly 10% of Australian students require additional assistance to meet minimum literacy and numeracy standards.

The results revealed a concerning increase on last year’s results, where 7% of students were not meeting the minimum standards, and this figure is even higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in remote parts of the Northern Territory.

Of particular concern is how the writing outcomes of Australian students are tracking. Achievement in this critical area has been on the decline over the last 7 years, with spelling the only metric to buck the trend, according to an analysis of 10 million NAPLAN (Years 3-9) writing results between 2011-2018.

The study, by the Australian Education Research Organisation (AERO), found that by Year 9, a staggering 85% of students were constructing sentences at or below the level expected of Year 7 students, and the majority could only demonstrate punctuation to a level expected of Year 3 students.

In response to this slump in students’ literacy outcomes, Federal Education Minister Jason Clare raised the NAPLAN minimum standards this year to identify students who need additional support.

Storytelling plays a critical role in writing outcomes

Dr Sandy Heldsinger, an expert with more than 20 years of experience in educational assessment and measurement. In 2015, she launched Brightpath, an assessment tool that enables teachers to quickly and accurately assess writing online.

Together with researchers from the University of Western Australia, the WA Primary Principals’ Association and early childhood teachers, Dr Heldsinger developed an approach for assessing oral language that allows teachers to better understand development of students’ oral story-telling ability.

The collaboration was motivated by a desire to develop an assessment that was relatively easy for teachers to use and would inform their teaching practice.

Following the successful completion of the research, the assessment was incorporated into the Brightpath reporting and assessment software. Brightpath was adopted as the WA state testing program for primary schools in 2015 and has been used in schools across Australia ever since.

“I am sure school leaders will have heard their early childhood teachers say, ‘If students can’t tell you a story, they can’t write it’. Our research and the assessment we developed bears this out,” Dr Heldsinger told The Educator.

“I would urge school leaders to support their teachers in teaching students how to tell stories orally.”

Dr Heldsinger said school leaders can do this by helping their teachers to use wordless picture books which teach students how to create characters and a problem for their character to resolve, and how to use descriptive language, temporal connectives, elaborated noun phrases, and noun/pronoun referencing.

“You will see great gains not only in your students’ oral story-telling ability but also in their reading and writing.”

Standardised assessments remain narrow

Dr Don Carter, Senior Lecturer and Acting Deputy Head of School in the UTS School of International Studies and Education, said schools are increasingly experiencing data saturation” from large-scale national and international assessment systems.

He says tests like NAPLAN and PISA, while good-intentioned, are “generating data of limited value” to classroom teachers and having a counterproductive impact on student assessment.

“This is due to their generic construction and because they focus largely on comparative, cross-jurisdictional student performance and historical trends,” Dr Carter said. "They also fuel political agendas and media headlines. The data also become the platform upon which to criticise teachers, teacher ‘quality’ and teacher education programs.”

Dr Heldsinger noted that while standardised testing is recognised by many leading academics as an effective way to establish an explicit school agenda, important issues remain.

“The National School Improvement Tool developed by Geoff Masters and ACER is an excellent resource and a great starting point. What I would add though, is that as things stand, our standardised assessments only cover narrow aspects of our curriculum,” she said.

“It is especially important to listen to teachers about what they see is working and what is not. Their observations are as valuable as standardised test data.”

Another key ingredient to the improvement of literacy outcomes, says Dr Heldsinger, is engaging students in discussions about literature. However, she cautioned that one popular method being used to achieve this is likely doing more harm than good.

“Whilst the traditional short text followed by a series of questions format of assessment helps teachers check on their students’ ability to comprehend texts, I think we have unintentionally created an artificial and rather damaging separation of reading from writing,” she said.

“A great action research activity for a primary school PLT or literacy team could be to find engaging but ‘meaty’ short stories [for example, Morris Gleitzman’s ‘Digging Up Dad’ collection of stories], devising open-ended questions to pose to students, and having students write their responses.”

Drawing from her research done in this area, Dr Heldsinger said she is confident that time spent analysing the samples in terms of student’s reading ability and their writing ability will provide “great insights” into how to better teach the literature component of the English curriculum.

Valuable lessons from Western Australia

In 2008, Western Australia's schools faced turmoil over the proposed introduction of outcomes and standards-based education for years 11 and 12. This decision polarised educators, with some favouring a developmental curriculum and others criticising a cumbersome assessment system.

More than 15 years on, Gonski 2.0 and ACARA are promoting learning progressions, said Dr Heldsinger.

“We shared all our data and our learning progressions with ACARA and because they used our work to inform the drafting of the writing component of the Australian learning progressions, schools can already, in a sense, access our empirically developed progressions,” she said.

“But words in these documents will always slide around in meaning, and the descriptions on their own are of limited use for assessment. Here’s an analogy that helps to explain the issue: ‘I can describe a swan or a goose to you. You don’t know which one I am describing until I show you a picture.’”

Dr Heldsinger said Brightpath represents a significant breakthrough not only because it can provide psychometrically derived learning progressions but also because the assessment process provides reliable teacher judgements.

“This allows us to accurately tell teachers what they need to teach their students next.”

Teachers must avoid using time-consuming rubrics

When asked how school leaders can ensure that teacher professional judgement remains a central component of assessment, complementing standardised tools like NAPLAN, Dr Heldsinger acknowledged that it is often difficult for schools to ensure their teachers judgements are consistent with their colleagues and over time.

In fact, Dr Hendsinger said this was the key motivating factor behind why she and Dr Steven Humphrey researched and developed Brightpath in the first place.

“What we don’t want is for teachers to spend huge amounts of time developing their own rubrics and moderation processes because our research has shown how very hard this is to do. The chances are that this activity stops teachers from focusing on their teaching,” she said.

Mark Scruby, Head of English at Ballarat Clarendon College is one educator who has seen the success of the program first-hand.

The school uses ‘Brightpath Progress’ at a few key points throughout the year, but other than that, teachers do not take marking home.

“Their teachers assess all the time, though, through formative in-the-moment assessments. I think this approach has great merit and is borne out by the school’s NAPLAN data,” Dr Heldsinger said.

“So, my advice is, where you can access a tool that provides reliable data, such as Brightpath, do, and support your teachers in using that tool.”

Dr Heldsinger said teachers should be discouraged from developing and using time-consuming rubrics. 

“Rather encourage and support your teachers in developing great and quick formative assessment strategies to use in class.”