Welcome to my Professional Learning blog.
My name is Matt Nicoll and I am a high school teacher in New Zealand, interested in improving the classroom experience for my students. I am open to trialing new approaches and hope to use this blog to reflect on my ideas and practices.

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Innovation in Assessment

#edchatNZ on 23 April addressed this issue in education. I was lucky enough to be Devil's Advocate for this Twitter Chat. "Lucky?", you rightly ask... Well, yes, lucky. This is a topic that I am passionate about, particularly in the realm of teaching Secondary Science and Chemistry. Lucky, because I had to (try to) ignore my predispositions, preconceptions and passions for the chat; instead, I had to "listen" to what was being said, and to challenge people, whether I agreed with them or not. Lucky, because I had to be more open-minded about this issue than I (probably) usually am.

During and after the chat, I was struck by two resounding themes:

  1. Many feel like we are slaves to the assessment process/expectations.
  2. There are some people who have wonderful ideas of how to make assessment work for their students (not to their students). They just need the opportunity to put these ideas into action.
In a nutshell, I see these as a closed mindset versus a growth mindset. I personally believe that NCEA (as a form of assessment) and SOLO Taxonomy (as a form of feedback, advice and self-assessment) provide us with opportunities to have a growth mindset.


First if all, I want to address a definition of "assessment". I am going to talk about assessment as a formal, reported task (or set of tasks). This may be to report National Standards or to give NCEA grades (primarily used in the New Zealand education system). I am not talking about the formative processes of feedback and advice. These are indeed assessments, but I am talking about assessment as a task, not as an act. I am talking about formal, summative assessment, not formative assessment.

I can only speak with any experience about teaching Secondary Science and Chemistry. I do not have much firsthand experience in Primary, Early Childhood, or in other subject areas. Therefore, I will only talk about the areas in which I feel I have some experience and expertise. My comments may, therefore, be very incorrect when related to these other fields of education.

In Junior Science, my experience has been that we have a set of common assessment tasks (tests, assignments, exams) to measure the level and/or progress of our students. We have units of work designed to excite students about the wonder of Science, develop their understanding of the Nature of Science, and to prepare them with prior knowledge that will be useful in future years of science study. In my experience, performance in the assessments is less important than the engagement, effort and learning of the individual students. I love teaching Junior Science!

Nevertheless, students are ever-judged by their outcomes in these common assessment tasks. This may be by their peers, by their parents, by the school, or by themselves. For some, this is wonderful motivation for doing their best. For others, these assessment results emphasise (or reinforce) what they cannot do. All too often, I have students who produce good work (some even produce excellent work) when producing project-type work, while these same students score incredibly poorly in tests and exams. Yes, my report comments and parent-teacher interview discussions focus on what the student can do well (and identify the student's limitations in test-/exam-type conditions), but that doesn't prevent many hard-working students becoming despondent about their progress/achievement in Science. It starts to create a closed mindset about their ability in the subject. I want to be clear; I am not talking about apathetic students, but those who genuinely try very hard and usually "do their best".

  • "Science is hard."
  • "Science sucks."
  • "I can't do Science."
  • "I'm not smart enough to do well in Science."
  • "I can't wait to drop Science."

For those who do succeed in Junior Science, and have a passion for Chemistry, I am lucky enough to teach a vast majority of them. I love Chemistry, but this is a subject where I feel like a slave to the assessment. It feels like the students' primary goal for taking Secondary School Chemistry is to get NCEA credits, and to get the best grades possible. The love for the subject itself is secondary to this goal. This focus is usually shared (handed down from?) parents and from the school. Again, success is judged upon grades in the assessments.

For this reason, units of work are designed to neatly marry up with assessment tasks. The aspects that will be assessed are given the most time in the teaching of these units. Fortunately, in Chemistry at least, this can still preserve the magic and awe of the subject, but this is not always the case. Assessment Calendars start to dictate the amount of time that can be dedicated to each unit of work, and parallel opportunities often need to be foregone because they cannot be fit in.

Again, I see students who have been working very well having their confidence and enjoyment of the subject undermined by an assessment result. Sometimes this is a lack of preparation and it is a tough (and good) lesson learned. Sometimes this is a "bad day at the office", but the die is cast for that particular assessment. Yes, Internal Assessments do often have re-submission or reassessment opportunities, but sometimes the time pressure is too great on students to do this justice as well as performing "to their potential" in their other subjects at the same time.

The students' sense of worth in the subject is being controlled by their achievement in the assessments. The teachers' programmes are being controlled by allowing students to perform at the best level possible. What a shame we are slaves to the assessment rather than servants to learning.


"Moonshot" was the term used in #edchatNZ. There was some real magic suggested there by teachers.

Teachers talked about designing assessment tasks and marking rubrics with their students. I challenged them on this in my role as Devil's Advocate, but see this as wonderful! How often do we actually unpack Achievement Standards with our classes as part of the learning process? How often do we get into a dialogue about what a certain level of detail for a definition, for example, is so important in the marking schedule?

Teachers talked about allowing students' submissions to be in a non-written format. Why not accept a "selfie video" or an annotated PowerPoint as a formal submission? English and Languages have speeches and other oral assessment tasks. Why can't Science, Geography, Mathematics...? So long as it satisfies the assessment criteria, why does it need to be written. We often accept verbal re submissions (clarifications) when someone is on a grade boundary; what is the difference?

I was very excited to be part of a discussion about basing the learning on students' interests and passions and/or on the most "wow-factor" aspects of a subject. From the learning, selecting assessments that the students could be measured against. This switch of the horse and carriage is one that I think NCEA internally-assessed Achievement Standards are perfect for. Externally-assessed Achievement Standards could be used this way too, though.

I have been working on this with my Year 11 Science class. We have only two predetermined Science Achievement Standards. The rest are being selected from the work the students do throughout the year. We started the year learning about Chemical Reactions. This included skills such as observing, classifying, balancing equations, inferring and justifying. Throughout the unit, the students built up a portfolio which was submitted and formally assessed.

The next unit was "Conspiracy!!". Students selected a conspiracy theory to learn about and decide if they believed the conspiracy or the "face value". They were taught research skills and how to analyse resources (the CRAAP Test) by our wonderful Librarian. I then used Austin's Butterfly (below) to teach a Critique Process. Depending upon the quality of the students' work, they will be given the opportunity to submit this as a formal assessment or not. Depending upon the context of their respective conspiracy theories, and the format of their submissions, we will search for Achievement Standards to measure their work against. Some may get Astronomy credits (Moon Landing hoax), for example. Many are likely to be assessed against an English Achievement Standard - Using Information Literacy Skills. Many are considering using this research for their speeches in English for later in the year!

The remainder of the year is based around Passion Projects, and using the experimental skills learned in "Chemical Reactions" and the information literacy skills learned in "Conspiracy!!" to make these inquiries robust and meaningful. Who knows how many Achievement Standards these students may decide to be assessed against.

There is one more predetermined Achievement Standard we are doing. We are doing the Level 1 Physics Practical Investigation. This can count towards Level 1 Numeracy as well as being a very good assessment for testing students' experimental design and laboratory report writing. It is a common assessment for all Year 11 students, not just my special lot. It fits in the ethos of "my" class, so I was always keen to assess them using this.

There are ways and means to be innovative with assessment and make it work for you and your students. There are some moonshot ideas that were shared via #edchatNZ last week, but many are not quite so "out there" as we may think; some teachers and some schools are already embracing and attempting many of these great ideas. Connect with someone who is trying these things, then have a discussion with the "powers that be" to see if you can be part of a growth mindset about assessment.