Autopsies versus check ups: views on assessment

An amazing colleague of mine (@MissDtheteacher) tweeted a great link written by Dr. Justin Tarte (@justintarte) a few weeks ago. As I often do on Twitter, I flagged it as one to skim and scan. Yet this post, 10 questions to ask yourself before giving an assessment, really struck a chord with me. I loved the medical analogy of autopsies (summative assessments) and check ups (formative assessments) – this really resonates with my thinking around assessment.

All three forms of assessment are valid – diagnostic, formative, and summative – and each serves a purpose. My concerns as a secondary school teacher, and a researcher, is that summative assessment is too prevalent and the dominance of summative assessment in schools creates a culture where attaining a grade is more important than learning. When  I was completing my masters research and writing up my dissertation, this was a conclusion that I reached and is supported by seminal and germane literature from around the world.

So the question has to be, why are we, as educators, still so keen to lay our students learning out and dissect it on a metaphorical autopsy table? Wouldn’t we be better to spend our time healing our students, through diagnostic and formative assessment, rather than carving them up to figure out what has happened?

It is widely accepted that an assessment for learning approach is empowering for students – it puts them in the driving seat of their learning and the teacher’s actions are focused on the learning needs of the individuals in their classes.

“Assessment for Learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there.”
Assessment Reform Group, Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles, 2002

This sounds like common sense and you would be hard pushed to find a secondary school teacher who does not agree with this ideal – yet why are secondary schools struggling to embed assessment for learning and rather use assessment of learning (summative) or assessment as learning (teaching to the test / performative measures being used to provide feedback)*.  A focus on grades, levels and sublevels, NCEA credits and University Entrance requirements are limitations for our students as they act as barriers for effective assessment – these act as the tools of the coroner as they conduct their autopsy.

So what would the alternative look like? I think that it could be a healthy blend of diagnostic, formative and summative assessment being integrated using the principles of AfL – giving the reins of learning over to the student. The principles of AfL are:

  1. Clear goals / learning objectives – clearly articulated to students
  2. Co-constructed success criteria
  3. Explicit teaching of what quality looks like – through exemplars
  4. Inducting students into the “guild” of the assessor (Sadler, 1989)
  5. Peer and self-assessment
  6. Powerful feedback about closing the gaps in learning as the learning is occurring

Sound easy, right? Sadly, the greatest barrier to effective AfL is the teacher. Teachers all mean well but a truly student-centred approach requires the teacher to let go of the locus of control, to step back and to allow the students time to learn, to make mistakes and to close the gaps in their learning – rather than the jumps the teacher has already planned for. There needs to be a shift in focus – from thinking that the teacher is the sole person who can help the student to acknowledging that the role of the teacher needs to be quite different. They need to making the learning visible, devise learning activities to allow students to work toward their learning goals, showcase different strategies that could be used to close gaps in learning, be one of the people that provides feedback about where the student is going, how they are going and where to next (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). If the teacher does this, they are more akin to the friendly GP giving a check up on learning, rather than the grim, clinical coroner wielding an autopsy saw.

Dr.Farouk - Stethoscope.-Source - Flickr

Dr.Farouk – Stethoscope.-Source – Flickr

* Lorna Earle uses the term ‘Assessment as learning’ in a different manner.


Assessment Online, TKI, Principles of assessment for learning (retrieved 6 Oct. 2014)

Assessment Reform Group, Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles, 2002 (retrieved 6 Oct. 2014)

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H., The Power of Feedback, REVIEW OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH 2007 77: 81

Sadler, R. D., (1989) ‘Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems’, Instructional Science, 18 (2) pp. 119-144


#edchatnz Conference – my reflection blog

I love that there is a blogging meme going around – it is awesome. Here are my brief, yet well considered responses…

1. How did you attend the #edchatnz conference (face 2 face, followed online or didn’t)?

I was lucky enough to have the inaugural #edchatNZ conference at my lovely school, Hobsonville Point Secondary School. I was teaching, and therefore part of the conference on Friday, and totally F2F on Saturday.

2.  How many others attended from your school or organisation?

All! And several from my other organisation, NZQA – Steve and Alan as my former NZQA ‘bosses’!

3. How many #edchatnz challenges did you complete?

Hardly any! Maybe two. I helped @michaelcentrino with some Twitter stuff and was in the Taheretikitiki Learning Community Selfie

4. Who are 3 people that you connected with and what did you learn from them?

  • @pamhook – I have had the pleasure of working with Pam before but we had a lovely, critical discussion about the perils of a new school and SOLO taxonomy – these are unconnected ideas! – and I continued to be awed by her.
  • @Melmoore – I felt that I met Mel properly at the end of the conference and it was awesome to connect with someone who has similar ideas about assessment and how it can empower students. I know that we can connect online, which is just as good.
  • @marywoomble – great to be sitting in the same workshop and realise that we are retweeting each other – great minds think alike! Again, more time together could have been awesome and I’m looking forward to the possibilities presented through our #socscichatNZ

5. What session are you gutted that you missed?

– I would have loved to have been able to attend the political debate that @claireamos chaired. I was teaching, which was really cool as well (don’t get me wrong), but it would have been great to have been able to take students along to this as well. Luckily we are having our own political debate next week (student led) with local politicans but I won’t be there.

6. Who is one person that you would like to have taken to Edchatnz and what thing would they have learnt?

I would have loved to have my old principal and friend Vicki Barrie there as she is so keen on being innovative in education. Unfortunately she is currently working towards her masters so (rightly so) was busy over the weekend. I would have also loved for some of my fellow Classics teachers to be there – notably Paul Artus!

7. Is there a person you didn’t get to meet/chat with (F2F/online) that you wished you had? Why?

As I teaching on Friday, I felt that I didn’t meet heaps of people I wanted to meet/chat with. While we met, I wanted to hear more from Sonya (@vanschaijik) as I love a lot of what she is doing online. I really enjoyed by brief conversation with Red (@rednz) – want to connect more with him online, wickedly funny guy!

8. What’s the next book you are going to read and why?

I purchased The Falconer by Grant Licthman when I realised that everyone else in my office has already read it/ only have an electronic copy. I’ve got a long haul flight on Friday so it may be my reading there. I am also about to read “Lead with Wisdom: How Wisdom Transforms Good Leaders into Great Leaders” by Mark Strom. I purchased this in a bookdepository shopping spree and love that it seems to be a mix of leadership and philosophy.

9. What is one thing you plan to do to continue the Education Revolution you learnt about at #EdchatNZ?

Get more teachers on Twitter! As president of my subject association I feel that my role is to provide links for people and Twitter is a connection to the wider educational sphere. Watch this space!

10. Will you take a risk and hand your students a blank canvas?

Yes! Absolutely!!! I do this all the time and while it is not a nice feeling at time, a smidge uncomfortable, it is what we need to do. However, we need to be there to support them.

It was the night before results – an NCEA story

It was the night before Christmas NCEA results and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse Level 1 boy…

NCEA results come out tomorrow. After the mix up last year with results being released early, students have been locked out of the site since the 9th of January. This is my first year as an anxious mother. I’m not sure whether my son is so concerned. He has a good sense of how his year has gone in light of his internal assessment grades, felt confident with some papers he sat in the externals and has a realistic idea of how (badly) some of the other papers went.

Counting down for NCEA results

The National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is New Zealand’s secondary school qualification. It is a mix of internal and externally assessed standards. NCEA is a high stakes qualification.  Doing well in NCEA is important for students.  The NCEA achievement determines entry to the next year of schooling and/or entrance to university.  Prospective employers also consider students’ achievement in the NCEA qualification, with Level 2 NCEA regarded as a baseline qualification for employment (NZQA, 2013).

Therefore, it is a nerve wracking evening around many homes in NZ tonight. What I do like about the NCEA is that students learning and understanding is acknowledged – it isn’t what they cannot do or do not know, rather it celebrates the diversity of students’ interests, passions and areas of expertise. I love that my son, who is passionate about art and design, can have an equal acknowledgement of his achievements alongside his friends who are into environmental science and history.

The thing that is really important is what happens next – results come, there are feelings of excitement and trepidation (hopefully there will be lots of excitement around my house), then it is on to the mad shuffle at schools. If students haven’t met the standards at the levels they were expecting/predicted to achieve, their proposed timetable is affected. I dreaded the first day that seniors were back at school; desperate students came begging in order to be allowed to stay in their proposed course, teachers were cajoled to accept students who had not chosen the subject, in my case Classical Studies, but ‘had nowhere else to go’ (these students were often accompanied with a note from the year level dean) and dealing with students who wanted you to look over their papers to see if they should send them back for a reconsideration – either they were close to meeting the standard, just short of university entrance or a few credits short of a Merit or Excellence endorsement. Moving to a new school means that I won’t have to deal with that for some time.

For us here tonight, it is all about Mathematics. It is strange to think that Level 1 Mathematics results will have an impact on my son’s future. He just said – “I’m 800% sure that I’m going to have to take Level 1 Mathematics again”.  But that is ok. NCEA works as a multi-level assessment system. If he needs to repeat one subject, it is not a problem to do so. His ability to progress in the subjects where he has performed well (Art Design, English, Graphics etc.) is not hindered because he was not at the level required.

One of my hopes for the future will be students know where they are at before, during and after assessment. How? By inducting them into the ‘guild of assessors’ (Sadler, 1989).  Using exemplars, discussing and unpacking what quality work looks like against the criteria, and providing opportunities for students to assess each other. Whether exams are the appropriate mode for students’ understanding to be measured is still up for debate. Is it an accurate measurement of student understanding under test conditions, often months after they completed the relevant learning, without access to resources… A debate I’m not quite ready for today.

Fingers crossed for tomorrow.


New Zealand Qualifications Authority. (2013). Using NCEA after leaving school  Retrieved 04.06.13, from

Sadler, D. R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional systems. Instructional Science, 18(2), 119-144.

Being on the edge…

It has been an interesting week. I started this week with a great sense of trepidation at the enormity of the task ahead of us. Thankfully, the lovely Claire and lovely Lea managed to talk me back down and calm my sense of impending doom (it wasn’t that bad, except in my head). I think that the reality of establishing a new school got too much for me but it was Lea’s challenge – what’s the rush – which made me take a deep breath, re-evaluate my mania and stop to enjoy the challenge once more.

Stepping back from the edge – or jumping over it – allowed me to approach our LTL planning day on Thursday with a clearer head, more keen focus and more fun. I think in my haste to get things done, I had forgotten to enjoy the time I have with colleagues. Chilling out in Muriwai helped as well of course.

Defying Gravity – Wicked

I had the joy of spending Friday afternoon with the Classical Studies Pre-service teachers (PSTs) at the University of Auckland. They were on an edge too – a different edge from mine though – they were at the cusp of finishing being baby teachers and launching off into the big, wide world beyond.  Some of them were looking over the edge with an awareness of the safety net below of a job already lined up, awareness of the support to be provided by colleagues and in some cases, a buddy from Uni going with you. Others were standing there, wanting to jump, waiting for their turn, eyes closed, listening for the right signal to leap. The frustration borne by a few of these teachers was a timely reminder for me – teaching and education can be frustrating. There are hurdles, for me – calming my sense of being busy all the time – for them, the reality of being so passionate about teaching and your subject area but being unable to secure a teaching position.

Our session on Friday was actually really good –  we looked at what was important for effective course design in Classical Studies, particularly in light of the alignment and the underused teaching and learning guides. I was surprised at the frankness expressed by some of these great PSTs – they were honest about their frustrations on practicum and, mentally, I kept going back to Dweck’s work on mindset. The students who were most frustrated seemed to possess a growth mindset – they were not willing to accept limits (of students, themselves or their Associate Teachers), they could see the potential in everyone and were willing to take risks to affect change.  I drove home inspired by many of these PSTs and look forward to working with them as colleagues in the future.

I cannot claim to be a proper drama teacher without making the obvious connection to a stunning piece of musical theatre – Wicked. Of course, it helps that this is the show which is currently touring in New Zealand. The crux of this story is that when the times get tough, those who are willing to change make the change. Elpheba, the ‘wicked’ witch of the west, defies gravity in order to stand up for her beliefs, despite the risks, to not accept what is staid and comfortable.  She ‘defies gravity’ – literally and figuratively – in order to push her boundaries. What a role model!


“Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes and leap!
It’s time to try
Defying gravity
I think I’ll try
Defying gravity
And you can’t pull me down!”

Of course, the weekend here was filled with my lovely son preparing for his first NCEA examination tomorrow morning. It has been an interesting experience watching him on the edge as well. Unlike earlier in the week, I am going to be the person holding onto the safety cord as he is decides which way to jump over the edge. Around 9.30 p.m., the night before the morning exam, he was still going through practice essays, trying to learn his quotes. We made a breakthrough earlier in the weekend where he drew the quotes as a means of learning them. He thought I was crazy at first but a nudge closer to the edge from me has given him the sense of control over what could have veered another direction. It was an example of student-centred learning in my living room and he was in control of the situation as a result.  He is standing on the edge, looking down, and I can only hope that he has the courage to also defy gravity.