Every year, at a school located in Melbourne’s east, some 295 students participate in annual Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT), which assess their progress in Reading, Vocabulary and Spelling, Mathematics, Grammar and Punctuation. Staff saw little of the resultant data, so were unable to observe trends or analyse their students’ results.
Following the 2017 test results, staff received a Professional Development training followed by brainstorming sessions on how to use the data to inform best practice. The focus was on writing, given that writing is the element common to all subjects.
First, a common “language” across all learning areas and grades was adopted. The purpose was to allow better mining of data, highlighting strengths and weaknesses in writing, and informing future learning and teaching with regard to the structural elements and assessment rubrics.
Research clearly shows that vocab instruction and student-directed learning are important to effective writing (Nagy, Berringer and Abbott, 2006). When students are given the opportunity to direct their own course of learning, they have ownership and thus a commitment to doing their best (Zimmerman and Risemberg, 1997). When teachers give positive feedback, learning is further improved. Formative Assessment, or continuous feedback throughout the learning process, is also a powerful strategy and is most beneficial when given in the development stage of the writing process.
Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) give a useful seven-step formative assessment strategy that could be used for writing:
- Identify to students what “good performance” looks like
- Teach students to self-assess
- Provide comprehensive and timely feedback
- Encourage teacher and peer dialogue
- Encourage and motivate students
- Give ample time for students to remedy their writing defects and deficiencies
- Students give feedback to their teachers, to help them inform and improve their teaching
Added to well-developed formative assessment strategies, is a need for students to engage in self-directed learning. Good writers plan, monitor, evaluate, revise and manage the writing process (Lenz, Ellis, and Scanlon (1996). Feedback obtained from students provides information to help teachers design future learning tasks.
Self-regulation is critical and is something that can be taught and learnt. It can, however, be something of a classroom challenge for teachers in the average classroom, as students who would become proficient all need assistance, which involves constant reinforcement and intervention. To advance a student’s learning requires assessment. It’s similar to cooking: as a student produces their learning “product,” the teacher, as the cook, will “taste” it to see what needs to be added or adjusted to improve the flavour. Summative assessment ensures that the soup is perfect before it is served (Robert Stake in Dirksen, 2011).
Rubrics and checklists are sound assessment strategies for critiquing pieces of writing. They make the learning expectations transparent, avoiding marker bias. Only definable qualities should be assessed, such as skills and concepts, which can be taught and learned. A school-wide standardised rubric was used to evaluate students’ writing, and thus to record changes.
Lastly, the greater the improvement in staff collaboration, the better the outcome for all schools involved as together they work to effect change.