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Standards-referenced assessment in primary schools

Introduction

This bulletin provides information about the assessment of student progress against specified standards, commonly known as standards-referenced assessment. It looks at four key questions:

  • What is meant by standards-referenced assessment?
  • What is the relationship between K-6 syllabus development and standards-referenced assessment?
  • What are the key elements in the use of standards-referenced assessment?
  • What does standards-referenced assessment look like in practice?

Standards-referenced assessment

In the late nineteen-eighties and the early nineteen-nineties, an international trend was identifiable in the extent of educational reform that occurred in many Western democracies. Though the measures differed in intensity from country to country (and, in some countries, from state to state), there was fertile ground for reform through the specification of standards within the schooling sector. Whereas existing syllabuses or curriculum guidelines provided some description of what could be taught, as well as broad intentions regarding student learning outcomes (through aims and objectives), there was little to support teachers in relation to standards beyond their own school-based experiences. What was missing were specified standards on which curriculum planning could be developed and teaching practice based, and from which student progress could be monitored. As Garth Boomer noted at the time:

"...we are at the end of an era spanning over two decades where systems have been very light on in relation to the kinds of outcomes to be expected from schooling at various stages; the post-compulsory years aside. Curriculum guides have been strong on philosophy, inputs and processes but, at best, only general about outcomes. Gestures in the direction of assessment have been vague or equivocal." Boomer (1992, p 61)

One of the outcomes of the promulgation of standards during the nineteen-nineties is that it is now easier to identify what individual states and countries expect students both to learn about and to learn to do. The ways in which students are taught and assessed are now framed by these standards.

What is meant by standards-referenced assessment?

Standards-referenced assessment refers to the process of collecting and interpreting information about students' learning, using outcomes as key reference points for decisions about their progress and achievement. Before attempting to clarify this definition, it is important to define what is meant by the terms "standards" and "assessment".

Standards

Standards represent a country's or a state's articulation of what school students are expected to know and to be able to do as a result of effective teaching and learning. These are commonly described for particular points in time.
In the Netherlands this means at the end of primary school, and again at the end of the compulsory high school years. It is also the case in some states in the USA, while, in some other states, the standards are defined grade by grade. In England these key points are at entry into school and at ages 7, ll, 14 and 16.
A number of Australian states have standards frameworks that are based on stage/year relationships. In NSW, the end of the notional stages and the related years of schooling (Kindergarten, Year 2, Year 4, Year 6, Year 8, Year 10 and Year 12) are used as the key markers for the reporting of student achievement.

Standards in NSW syllabuses are described:

  • through the aim/s: which broadly describes the overall intention of the syllabus,
  • through the objectives: which state in broad terms the knowledge, skills and understanding it is intended students will gain,
  • through the content: which describes what students will be taught in each stage, and
  • through the outcomes: which describe the knowledge, skills and understanding expected to be gained by most students in each stage.

Assessment

Assessment in education involves identifying, gathering and interpreting information about students' learning - it is an attempt to "...know the students" (Rowntree, 1987). In an outcomes environment, this means in relation to the standards set and through careful monitoring of each student's progress.
In relation to assessment practice in primary classrooms, knowing the students requires making successive judgements about each child: what they can do and what they still can't do. In making such judgements over time, teachers can identify the extent of each student's progress: whether learning progress is typical - or whether it has stalled, is slow or rapid. They can then determine what needs to be done next and what strategies and learning experiences are most appropriate to support each individual's further learning.
In addition to providing information for reporting, assessment plays an important role in informing the selection of learning experiences. Assessment precedes teaching, it inherently occurs during teaching, and it can also occur outside of a classroom context - it is a fundamental component in the teaching-learning cycle. When assessment is both perceived and practised in this way, teachers are able to observe both anticipated and unanticipated outcomes.
There are various assessment modes from which teachers, schools and systems choose when determining what, when and how to assess. The table below includes a brief description of some of these modes. (It should be noted that the distinctions between these modes are not always as clear as the terms may imply.)

Modes of assessment

formal
carried out as a discrete, structured information-gathering task formative assessment
formative
where the purpose is to acquire information on which to base further teaching continuous assessment
continuous
happening throughout a term/semester/year/stage course work
course work
what the student does/produces during the term/ semester/year/stage which may be in response to set tasks process-orientated assessment
process-orientated
focussed on what is done - assessed in "real time" (eg participating, talking, moving) internal assessment
internal
assessed by someone within the teaching situation, usually the classroom teacher informal assessment
informal
carried out as part of an everyday teaching/learning activity summative assessment
summative
where the purpose is to acquire information for reporting about the student at the end of a term /semester/ year /stage and on which to base further teaching terminal assessment
terminal
happening at the end of a term/semester/year/stage examination
examination
what the student does/produces in response to set items, at a set time and under particular conditions product-orientated assessment
product-orientated
focussed on what is produced - tangible, concrete evidence (eg written texts, artworks, projects) external assessment
external
assessed by a person/people outside the teaching situation or by way of tasks set outside the school

The purpose of an assessment should be the key factor in determining what, when and how to assess the performance of students. It is important, therefore, that assessors are aware of why they need information, what information they need, for whom the information is intended and what is the most efficient (and fair) way of collecting and interpreting it.

Standards-referenced assessment: a definition

Standards-referenced assessment:

  • links the achievement of students to specified standards through evidence gained of patterns of performance on multiple and varied tasks and from observations over time, and
  • involves gathering, judging and interpreting information about student achievement in order to make judgements and facilitate and monitor each student's progress against syllabus outcomes.

Taken together, these provide a framework for a standards-referenced assessment system within which teachers may make qualitative judgements about the achievements of their students against specified standards both for improving learning and for summative reporting.

What is the relationship between K-6 syllabus development and standards-referenced assessment?

The development of syllabuses in NSW involves a number of processes aimed at ensuring that syllabus standards are of the required quality. These processes include:

  • a review of the relevant research,
  • an analysis of data obtained from external assessment programs,
  • the collection and analysis of students' work samples,
  • a review of standards established in other states and countries, and
  • feedback from teachers, principals and academics on draft writing briefs and syllabus documents.

Syllabus outcomes provide the basis for standards-referenced assessment. Some principles that have guided K-6 writing teams in the development of these outcomes have included:

  • reducing the outcomes to a manageable number,
  • limiting the use of subject-specific jargon to what is necessary to reflect the content,
  • ensuring that there is a clear relationship between the content and the set of outcome statements, and
  • including additional supportive material such as stage statements, indicators and student work samples.

The stage statements (which provide a holistic description of student achievement at the end of each stage), indicators (which are included to assist teachers in monitoring student progress within a stage) and student work samples (which are included to illustrate what the stage outcomes mean in the context of student work) provide teachers with additional information to assist them in making judgements about their students' work.
When outcome statements are too detailed they become burdensome and restrictive. When too broad, they become vague and offer little assistance to the classroom teacher - particularly if they are disconnected from syllabus content. This is a problem that is encountered whenever a country, state, or school attempts to describe learning achievements. It is for this very reason that the aim, objectives, content and the outcomes (along with the accompanying stage statements, indicators and student work samples) should be seen as key reference points for teachers in their understanding of the standard.
There is now sufficient evidence to suggest that outcomes need to specify what children will both know and be able to do in a way that is not so general that it fails to identify what is critical but not so detailed that the identification of achievement is presented in such minute detail that teaching becomes reduced and fragmented, and assessment tasks dominate teaching time and purpose.

In keeping with the Board's syllabus development process, syllabus outcomes will be monitored over time to ensure that they remain relevant and continue to assist teachers' planning, programming, assessing and reporting.

Outcomes in K-6 syllabuses serve several purposes. They assist teachers:

  • in their planning,
  • in developing learning experiences,
  • in monitoring student progress,
  • in assessing student achievement in terms of the main aspects of each stage of the specific syllabus, and
  • in reporting student progress and achievement.

In this way, the outcome statements provide signposts along a learning journey.

What are the key elements in the use of standards-referenced assessment?

The development of standards through the nineteen-nineties has been accompanied by both increased interest and awareness of how students should be assessed against these criteria rather than against the achievement of other students. This has resulted in more focussed discussion on three key elements in the use of standards-referenced assessment:

  • assessment methods,
  • the professional judgement of teachers, and
  • external assessment programs.

Assessment methods

The demand for more valid and meaningful information in relation to student achievement has given rise to a number of assessment methods that go beyond the traditional teacher-devised test.
These methods, usually referred to as performance assessments, are aimed at assessing the capabilities of students in various situations. Such measures are highly compatible within a standards-referenced approach to assessment.

The most common assessment methods used to provide evidence of achievement using outcomes are:

  • observing and recording student achievement as it occurs, eg oral presentations, movement skills, participation, language development;
  • mapping progress through the collection of student work samples over a period of time (often through print-based products)
  • tasks that incorporate the application of understandings and learning processes in a set project;
  • analysis of non-print-based work samples in areas such as in Visual Arts (Creative and Practical Arts) and designing and making (Science and Technology);
  • pen/pencil and paper testing.

The professional judgement of teachers

The previous methods rely on the professional judgement of the classroom teacher, which, in an outcomes environment, requires making on-balance judgements using available evidence, and ensuring that decisions about student achievement are based on:

  • more than a single performance;
  • achievement in more than one context; and
  • reliable data acquired in a fair and challenging environment.

It is axiomatic that a teacher's familiarity with the standard of work that the outcome is meant to describe is the most significant factor in making such decisions. Equally, the value of groups of teachers engaging in dialogue about assessment - jointly devising assessment tasks, judging student work and collecting examples of work from within the school, is well supported in the literature[1]. As Grundy points out:

"...issues such as what will count as evidence of achievement of any educational outcome need to be addressed and debated widely within the school. Furthermore, the process of making judgements needs to be understood as a collaborative practice, not an individual one." Grundy, S. (1994, p 14)

It has always been acknowledged that the use of standards for planning, programming, assessing and reporting in the key learning areas will need to occur gradually over several years. Familiarity with the standards will occur after teachers have worked with the syllabuses and support materials. The value of stage statements, indicators and student work samples in illustrating what typical achievement looks like can not be underestimated - these play a vital part in developing teachers' understanding of the standards.

External assessment programs

In addition to giving increased emphasis to internal assessment (based on teacher judgement), the specification of standards in education has also resulted in the establishment and confirmation of external assessment programs.
Several states in Australia now incorporate external tests as part of an overall approach to standards-referenced assessment and reporting. Data obtained from tests such as the Basic Skills Test, when accompanied with information obtained from internal assessments, provide teachers, parents, students, schools and systems with a more comprehensive account of attainment in relation to the specified standards.

Over time, teacher understanding of the standards will be internalised and the knowledge of what constitutes the standards expected by each syllabus will become an integral component of teaching and learning and assessment and reporting.

What does standards-referenced assessment look like in practice?

The use of a standards-referenced approach to assessment is now a feature of teaching practice in a number of NSW primary schools.

Primary teachers are using a standards-referenced approach when:

  • the assessments tasks they design are linked to syllabus outcomes,
  • students are given the opportunity to demonstrate their achievement of outcomes in a range of tasks,
  • their on-balance judgements of student achievement are based on a clear understanding of the standards that are illustrated through indicators and student work samples, and
  • student achievement is reported in relation to the standards.

References

The Advent of Standards in Australian Education
Boomer, G. (1992), Curriculum Perspectives, 12 (1), 61-66

Are Academic Standards A Threat or an Opportunity?
Cross, C. and Joftus, S. (1997), NASSP Bulletin, 81, 590, 12-20

Linking Performance Assessment and Curricular Goals
Day, V. P. and Skidmore, M. L. (1996),Teaching Exceptional Children, September/October 1996, 59-64

Beyond Testing
Gipps, C. (1994), The Falmer Press, London, England

Restructuring the Curriculum of Australian Schools: Cross-curricular Issues and Practices
Grundy, S. (1994), Australian Curriculum Studies Association

Lessons from the Field about Outcomes-based Performance Assessments
Marzano, R. (1994), Educational Leadership, 51, 6, 44-50

Professional Development for Implementing Standards: Experimentation, Dilemma Management, and Dialogue
Monson, R. J. and Monson, M. P. (1997), NASSP Bulletin, 81, 590, 65-73

Two-plus Decades of Educational Objectives
Popham, J. (1987), International Journal of Educational Research 11 (1), 31-41

Assessing Students: How Shall We Know Them?
Rowntree, D. (1987), Kogan Page, London, England

Using Assessing to Improve Learning
Shepard, L. (1995), Educational Leadership, 52, 5, 38-43

Outcome-based Education
Willis, S. and Kissane, B. (1995), Education Department of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia

[1] see, for example, Monson and Monson, 1997; Cross and Joftus, 1997; Day and Skidmore, 1996; Shepard, 1995; Willis and Kissane, 1995; Gipps, 1994; Marzano, 1994; and Grundy, 1994.

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