At a school located in Melbourne’s east, some 295 students participate every year in annual Progressive Achievement Tests (PAT), which assess their progress in Reading, Vocabulary and Spelling, Mathematics, Grammar, and Punctuation. However, staff generally were not able to effectively use the resultant data, which made it difficult for them 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, but the principles could apply to any subject.
First, a common “language” across all learning areas and grades was adopted. The purpose was to allow better mining of data, which would highlight strengths and weaknesses in writing and inform future learning and teaching with regard to structural elements and assessment rubrics.
Research clearly shows that vocabulary 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). Good writers plan, monitor, evaluate, revise and manage the writing process (Lenz, Ellis, and Scanlon (1996). When teachers give positive feedback, learning is further improved. Formative assessment, continuous feedback throughout the learning process, is also a powerful strategy and is most beneficial in the development stage of the writing process. Feedback obtained from students can also be helpful, as it provides information to help teachers design future learning tasks.
Nicol and Macfarlane-Dick (2006) give a useful seven-step formative assessment strategy that could be used for writing and for most other subjects:
- 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.
- Collect feedback from students for their teachers to help inform and improve teaching methods.
Self-regulation is critical and is something that can be taught and learnt. It can, however, be something of a challenge for teachers, as students need assistance to become proficient, which involves frequent reinforcement and intervention. Advancing a student’s learning requires assessment. It is similar to cooking: as a student produces their learning product, the “soup,” the teacher 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 and help with avoiding grader bias. Only definable qualities should be assessed, such as specific skills and concepts. In this case, the staff created a school-wide standardised rubric for evaluating students’ writing, which allowed staff to identify changes over time.
Lastly, the work that the staff did together led to improvements in staff collaboration. This sort of collaboration across subjects and grade levels can be very helpful for improving outcomes as staff work together to create change.