Student assessment is the key to proper reform of junior cycle

Opinion: School-based assessment is an important element in proposed reforms, says the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. We need to move towards an emphasis on learning at junior cycle and away from seeing it as a dress rehearsal for the Leaving Cert

Real change across junior cycle will begin by changing what happens at the end of junior cycle, the NCCA says. But teacher unions are opposed to current reform plans. Above, members of the TUI and the ASTI picketing Rosmini Community College on Grace Park Road during the teachers strike late last year. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Real change across junior cycle will begin by changing what happens at the end of junior cycle, the NCCA says. But teacher unions are opposed to current reform plans. Above, members of the TUI and the ASTI picketing Rosmini Community College on Grace Park Road during the teachers strike late last year. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

There’s a frequently heard reference in education about assessment being the tail that wags the curriculum dog. Judging by the number of column inches given to the subject of assessment at junior cycle in recent months, you’d be forgiven for concluding that it wags the whole body of reform proposed at junior cycle.

All of this reflects the fact that educational assessment is a powerful tool in the world of learning. It strongly influences students’ sense of themselves as learners. It’s the key to them understanding and knowing how to make progress in their learning. It is a determinant of the learning methods teachers use and students experience in the classroom. No wonder, then, that when it comes to educational reform, another frequently voiced view is that if assessment doesn’t change, nothing else will.

The view that assessment change should be the driver underpinning junior cycle reform was central to the advice the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) presented to then minister for education Ruairí Quinn in late 2011, on which he acted in 2012. As the debate on assessment at junior cycle builds across the media, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the nature and basis of that advice.

The NCCA uses evidence from educational and other research, national and international, along with the valued experience of practitioners and experts, to arrive at advice on curriculum and assessment developments in early childhood, primary and postprimary education. The NCCA is a statutory, representative body. The approach through which we develop curriculums requires us to get agreement where we can, so our committees include representatives of the education partners: teacher unions, management bodies, parents, further and higher education and business interests. Increasingly we’re finding new and effective ways for the student voice to be heard in our deliberations too.

Beyond our committees, consultation is a feature of the approach taken: there are public consultations on all major policy documents and curriculums before advice goes to the minister of the day. By then, the NCCA has discussed and deliberated, sometimes over years, so our advice travels without fear or favour. It may come with the caveats of some education partners. In the case of junior cycle, the concerns of the partners on resources and of the teacher unions on school-based assessment were conveyed to the minister. But advice on large-scale reform is never offered lightly.

 

The advice on assessment

What advice was offered on assessment at junior cycle three years ago? First, that assessment should always be at the service of learning. The purpose of classroom assessment and assessment for certification at junior cycle should be to feed into supporting learning and to enable students to make progress in their learning. Achieving this involves teachers working with students on assessment before, during and after learning. Through this involvement, teachers become more skilled in a variety of assessment practices and they come to use assessment information to make adjustments to teaching and learning approaches.

With this purpose for assessment in mind, the NCCA’s advice noted how the evidence from ESRI research on the student experience of the Junior Cert pointed to too great an emphasis being placed on performance in the exam rather than on the process of learning. Classrooms had become rehearsal spaces for the exam, and students were often more focused on learning the script for the performance rather than on the learning itself.

The Junior Cert had become a dress rehearsal for the Leaving Cert instead of a support for learning in junior cycle. Its purpose should be different from the Leaving Cert’s. Another version of the Leaving Cert was no longer needed when the vast majority of students proceed to senior cycle anyway.

The advice identified school-based assessment as an important element in a changed assessment system at junior cycle. The purpose of school-based assessment is twofold. The most obvious purpose is to give students feedback on their progress and their work. But the other is just as important: students need to develop expertise; if they are to improve, then they need to share the same concept of quality appropriate to the task as that held by their teacher and come to recognise it in their own work.

In external examinations, students can’t do this: their work goes to someone they have never seen or heard and is assessed for quality. The subtle message is that quality is someone else’s responsibility, and not theirs; and, in the current system, not their teachers’. When you work directly with students in the assessment process, it allows them to learn how to judge the quality of their work and to take responsibility for it.

In looking at assessments linked to certification, the NCCA advised that an examination should be retained for 60 per cent of the marks and it should be set and marked by the State Examinations Commission (SEC). The school-based component of assessment should be allocated 40 per cent of the marks and the assessment tasks involved should be set by the NCCA/SEC and marked by the student’s teacher.

The work would then be discussed and moderated by a group of teachers in the school to arrive at an agreed school standard, and, finally, externally moderated on a sample basis by the SEC to assure standards between schools.That’s precisely what Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan has now put on the table.

The NCCA’s advice was unequivocal about the need for assessment change. If assessment didn’t change, not a whole lot else would. It referred to one of the most consistent and universal ironies of the change process in education, well documented in educational reforms across the world: that change can happen but the student experience can remain largely the same. Educational change is one of those processes that has a habit of resetting itself back to how things have always been done.

The advice was clear: system-wide change has to begin with the examination. Unless it does, attempts to renew teaching and learning, to build school and professional capacity and to support student engagement will absorb resources, time and energy but deliver little. Real change across junior cycle will begin by changing what happens at the end of junior cycle.

The changes proposed are not radical by international standards; the proposed new arrangements will still include externally set and marked examinations and a national qualification for all students. But by Irish standards, for a postprimary system so focused on examinations, they represent a radical departure.

There are challenges involved in junior cycle change: in resourcing and supporting schools and teachers in the change and in assuring the quality of the arrangements for school-based assessment. A further challenge, evident in the wide-ranging views expressed in the media recently, lies in changing system and public expectations of assessment and qualifications at junior cycle. But assessment at junior cycle cannot continue to be assessment at Leaving Cert by another name. It has a different role to play and a different purpose to fulfil.

 

Brigid McManus is chairwoman of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and former secretary general at the Department of Education

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