Wales: changing assessment culture
In early 2020 the Welsh Government published Curriculum for Wales Guidance[i], which implies fundamental changes in assessment culture, policy and practice. How does a country radically change its assessment culture? Recent history in Wales provides some messages and raises questions for us all.
Recognise that more of the same will no longer work. Concerns about attainment (including PISA scores) from 2012 onwards converged with growing dissatisfaction in the education community with prescriptive curriculum and assessment arrangements: further prescription was not a viable option for improvement.
Establish clear parameters for addressing the problem. The Welsh Government in 2014 commissioned an in-depth report[ii] to ‘conduct a fundamental Review of Curriculum and Assessment Arrangements in Wales’ for all 3-16 year-olds. Informed by international research and practice, this provided an integrated framework of proposals to be carried forward through ‘the sustained and active participation of educational practitioners and the wider community’ (p.1). The Welsh Government accepted the recommendations and declared education to be ‘our national mission’[iii].
Understand that fundamental change requires transformative systemic change. The government recognised that its aspirations required radical re-evaluating curriculum principles and structures, assessment purposes, policy development processes and professional learning models.
Use and make clear underpinning principles. This curriculum is inclusive, purpose-led, respects individuals and celebrates diversity; learners are challenged and supported to engage with, share responsibility for and contribute to planning progression in their own learning rather than driven to attain prescribed age-related standards. Assessment is integral to the curriculum and to teaching: the primary purpose of assessment is to inform progression to future learning, day-to-day and over time; understanding how learning can be furthered fosters pedagogical approaches which provide for shared reflection and planning by practitioner and learner. Relatively light touch legislation specifically mandates progression as a fundamental principle[iv] while the Guidance (p. 229) bars using assessment information as a performance measure.
Evolve and employ a development process aligned with these aspirations. Government commitment to new ways of working supported the evolution of a powerful model of co-construction as groups of practitioners, policy makers and researchers collaboratively developed the curriculum framework: statements of What Matters, descriptions of learning progression and assessment guidance. Management groups comprising all three communities shared responsibility for thinking through key decisions. Through 2019 practitioners engaged in critical discussion of a draft (principles and details) and so contributed to extensive modification.
Develop subsidiarity to embed policy into practice. Schools and practitioners now enjoy the right and responsibility to plan their own curriculum within the outline national framework. Knowing their own contexts, the needs of their learners and the resources and expertise available inform their planning of learning. The curriculum guidance provides a route map within which different pathways can be planned: progression in learning may require diversions, retracing of steps and variations in pace. Bringing together content, pedagogy and assessment activities promotes coherent and engaging learning experiences, relevant to context and learner.
Establish relevant approaches to capacity building. Capacity building at all levels (national, local, school) and professional learning are aimed at improving learning now and in the future. Processes which are forward-directed and empowering for all replace discrete events targeted at individual practitioners for bounded purposes. Engaging with underpinning principles precedes detailed curriculum planning[v]. Professional standards for practitioners[vi] establish their right to work in schools that are learning organisations[vii]. Beyond the school, this approach currently includes support for practitioner networks building their own agendas, research partnerships between schools and universities, close-to-practice research and a working group of practitioners developing learning portfolios to evidence progression.
Continue to think through questions such as:
- How do we support practitioners and learners in sharing responsibility for understanding and planning progression in learning?
- How do we treat with respect the views of those acculturated over years to different principles?
- How do we ensure equity for learners across the country?
- How do we design school qualifications consistent with this approach to curriculum planning and assessment?
- How might national and local improvement processes reflect this culture?
- How might our conception of policy alter as processes of continuing co-construction and subsidiarity replace top-down mandated implementation?
Such questions may be relevant beyond Wales.
[i] Welsh Government (2020) Curriculum for Wales Guidance Cardiff: Welsh Government
[ii] Donaldson, G (2015) Successful Futures Cardiff: Welsh Government
[iii] Welsh Government (2017) Education in Wales: Our national mission Action Plan 2017-21 Cardiff: Welsh Government
[iv] Welsh Government (2021) Curriculum and Assessment (Wales) Act 2021 §7
‘The Progression Code (1) The Welsh Ministers must issue a code (the “Progression Code”) that sets out the way in which a curriculum is to make provision for progression by pupils and children. (2) A curriculum does not make provision for appropriate progression unless it accords with the Progression Code…’
[v] Welsh Government (2020) The Journey to 2022 Cardiff: Welsh Government
[vi] Welsh Government (2019) Professional standards for teaching and leadership; Welsh Government (2019) Professional standards for assisting teaching
[vii] Welsh Government (2018) Developing Schools in Wales as Learning Organisations which builds on OECD (2016) What makes a school a learning organisation? A guide for policy makers, school leaders and teachers. Paris: OECD