Standing the test of time - questions to guide assessment

By Kaye Brunton on November 15, 2021 in Assessment for learning

I have recently reflected on what has shaped my learning and practice around assessment throughout my 40-year career in education.

The theory-to-practice loops throughout my career have caused me to keep refining and shaping my thinking and my practice. From being a student at school, learning to be a teacher, being a teacher, teaching people to be teachers, teaching teachers and leaders to be better teachers and leaders, being a leader myself, and back to working alongside teachers and leaders again…this journey has forced me to continue to evolve my beliefs while seeing and being bombarded with many changes in policy and practice.

Start with purpose

Research tells us that formative assessment is integral to good progress and achievement. However, being part of the assessment for learning movement from the outset as a facilitator, then practitioner, I would have to agree with Dylan Wiliam’s concern about the slow progress in the use of formative assessment in teaching and learning in our schools. Wiliam differentiates assessment for learning and formative assessment in that the former is a case of summative assessment being used to backwash into learning, whilst formative assessment is information being used to form the direction of future learning. Throughout my practice I have seen many teachers who genuinely think they are formative practitioners who are enabling their ākonga to become agentic in their learning. The student voice collected from classrooms often paints a different picture, however, of students who cannot clearly articulate their learning, next steps or why they are involved in this piece of learning. I believe the mind shift required to be a true formative practitioner is significant:

  1. teachers must believe that their learners should know what they are learning and why

  2. they should have examples of quality work and co-constructed criteria for success

  3. they should collaborate with other learners to construct their learning, supporting one another.

I have watched, listened, and participated as the tides of change have tossed assessment around, but through this time there are things that have stayed with me and remained constant. The following have been for me, and may be for others, helpful guides along the way to becoming a more formative practitioner.

Quite early in my career, I heard the esteemed Terry Crooks pose two significant questions that underpin my practice (not just in assessment):

  1. What’s the benefit?

  2. What’s the harm?

These questions signify to me the heart and purpose of our practice - the learner and the reason. This to me is at the heart of everything we do in our influential and privileged roles as teachers.

When working with students becoming teachers, I would always bring them back to some simple but loaded questions based on Terry Crooks’ questions:

  • What is the benefit of any planned learning experience or assessment and what is going to be done with it?

  • Is there any potential harm that might come of what you might be intending for your ākonga?

A whole raft of further questions helped these student teachers (and me!) plan for their students. Because the teacher needs a raft of knowledge.

  • What are the learners needing to learn and why? (We need knowledge of our learners and the curriculum).

  • What do you want them to know or find out from this teaching? (We need curriculum knowledge).

  • What will it look like when they do/have? (We need curriculum knowledge).

  • What is the best way to find out what they know or can do? (We need pedagogical knowledge, which includes evaluative capability).

These questions have stood the test of time with me through the toss and churn of assessment practice. Building the answers to these questions with the learners is where their agency can occur and ākonga can become part of the process. Assessment becomes part of the learning and teaching process - not sitting outside of it. I make a link here to Assessment to Improve Learning: Principles, Practices and ProofPrinciple one states that assessment guides improvement in learning and teaching, and Principle two - assessment builds student agency.

There was always purpose and there was always the consideration of the learner at the centre of this learning.

If you think about what Lee Schulman said about the areas of knowledge needed by teachers - that the importance of knowledge of your learners and the context you are working in is as important as general pedagogical, pedagogical content, and subject knowledge. It is the combination of knowing your learners and what they bring, and what the curriculum (NZ and local) states the learners need to learn. Principle four - curriculum is interconnected with learning, teaching and assessment.

Whilst all the areas of teacher knowledge are important, that knowledge of the learner is of course the area that is critically important for effective teaching and using assessment for learning. For example, coming into my role as principal, the school had been using STAR testing religiously each year. When I asked what it told us about our learners the response was, not much actually as we already know our learners struggle in this area - vocabulary is a weakness. So, what is the benefit of this testing, especially if you already know this about your learners? And maybe - what is the harm?

Another example, and connected to the previous one, we also knew that many of our tamariki progressed quite slowly on entry to school, and by about year three were starting to take off. Knowing this, we adjusted our progress graphs at the junior end. As a result, teachers felt less stressed about giving that extra time to consolidate some of the letter/sound and basic work knowledge as they built vocabulary through deliberate acts of teaching oral language. It wasn’t a lowering of expectation, but an acknowledgement based on the knowledge we had of our learners.

In maths, we were using our SMS indicators of learning for next steps goal setting. Teachers were then doing JAM or GLoSS testing when they already knew that learners had mastered something. Some were noticing that if they used the indicators well and consistently, they knew what the testing would tell them - depending on how well that student went that day.

So, knowing our learners well means often we can do away with some of the ‘point-in-time’ testing that we do out of habit or because it is on a schedule. Principle three - necessary and sufficient evidence of progress and achievement is gathered using a range of assessment approaches.

Knowing our learners is also knowing about their backgrounds, whānau, iwi and other connections of importance. Local curriculum development alongside iwi and whānau is central to teaching what our people want their tamariki to know about significant stories, places, people, events combined and aligned with what our mandated curricula tell us. Principle four - curriculum is interconnected with learning, teaching and assessment. Working with whānau to find this out and build a profile of what ‘we’ (whānau, school, community) want for our learners when they leave our places of learning. It will then guide what we teach, how we teach it, how we will gauge what they have learnt and where they are at in their learning. Principle five - assessment is fair and serves the learning of all students.

Finally, how is the information we gather through the course of our everyday teaching and from more formal point-in-time assessments used? Professional inquiry is the way of the world these days. In our school, we took a broad approach using a tiering rating for our learners for reading, writing and mathematics:

  • tier one - operating at curriculum level expectation

  • tier two - needing a boost of some sort to operate at curriculum level expectation

  • tier three - likely to indeed long-term support.

The tiering data collected termly sat in the middle. We made school-wide decisions about professional learning for staff, and teachers used that information to make decisions for their classroom teaching and individual learners. Principle seven - assessment information is essential at all tiers of the education system. The finer grained assessment occurred in the day-to-day minute-by-minute teaching. We guided this by planning - noticing, recognising, and responding.

Where we knew we needed lots of mahi as a staff was around the moderation of our tiering. This is time-intensive work but to make the information collected reliable and valid, we must spend the time. Principle six - assessment information is dependable. I think this is the place where we can make the most difference for teachers and learners. Having common understanding for all about what progression looks like can guide a child’s learning journey more effectively and eliminate repetition and gaps in their learning.

To sum up what I have learnt from moving through theory-to-practice loops:

  • There is no one-size-fits-all model - it takes ongoing review into what we do and why. Does assessment information tell us what we need to know (leader, teacher, ākonga, whānau)?

  • What you assess, why you assess and how you assess are conversations to have with all the stakeholders.

  • It is important to take time to develop a shared understanding of progression, which you have to revisit regularly (e.g. for new staff).


New Zealand Assessment Institute. (2021). Assessment to Improve Learning: Principles, Practices and Proof.

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