Part 4
Assessing Skills
There are two aspects to this:
• How do we know how well skills have been developed?
• Against what measures can skills be assessed?
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So, how do we assess skills? We suggested earlier that the
best way was to observe them being deployed.
Prof Laura Greenstein of the University of Connecticut advocates what she
call ‘authentic learning’ that provides contexts within which assessments of
‘mastery’ can take place.
Assessing 21st Century
A Guide to Evaluating
Mastery and Authentic
2012 Corwin Books
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‘Mastery Learning’ is often linked to a ‘competency’ approach and
Brian Male suggested this was “the ability to apply knowledge with
confidence in a range of situations”. This implies the use of skills to
apply knowledge, so the higher (or deeper) levels of knowledge are
seen as skills-based (more of this in the next part).
Lorna Greenstein sees ‘authentic learning’ as being located in a real
or realistic setting, so that learning is not just abstract and
theoretical but meaningful to the learner in their own context.
These settings then become the contexts within which skills can be
deployed and so assessed. Without the authentic setting,
assessment is not so valid.
Authentic learning and ‘authentic assessment’ are part of a world-wide
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Sheila Valencia is Professor of Education at the University of Colorado.
Her 1993 book ‘Authentic Reading Assessment’ is interesting in that
one might have thought that reading is always located in its own
setting anyway. It is skills like problem solving that might vary greatly
from setting to setting, and when you really have to solve a problem in
real life, then it might be much easier (or harder!) than in the
classroom setting.
However, in Unit 3 we looked at ED Hirsch’s research that showed that
reading skills are, indeed, contextually related. So ‘authentic’ learning
and assessment are really important.
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The key point here is that if we want to assess skills – be they subject
skills or more generic ‘21st Century’ skills – then the best approach is
to observe those skills being deployed. The more authentic the
situation in which they are deployed, then the more valid the
assessment is going to be.
Laura Greenstein’s point is that if skills are learned in an authentic
setting, then they will be able to be deployed in an authentic setting.
This is not just an assessment point. If we want our students to be
able to apply their skills in real life, then we need to make our learning
contexts as close as possible to those real-life situations. Hence
‘authentic’ learning and assessment.
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This still leaves us with the issue of what we are measuring skill
performance against. How do we know how good the performance is
when we see it?
There are two separate approaches here:
• A skills ladder
• Contextual performance
Of course, you will already have set learning objectives in your planning
and these will be your key assessment criteria.
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Did you notice this ladder by the
way? What do you think it is
based on?
Doesn’t it look a bit like Bloom?
You will be familiar with this approach. It takes a particular skill and
imagines what the progressive levels might be. This then acts as a
rubric or marking scheme, and so adds some structure and reliability to
what would otherwise be a subjective judgment.
The issue is the extent to which we get these levels right, or whether
there really are distinct levels, or whether skills can be considered (or
even exist) outside of the context in which they are deployed.
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Do you remember ED Hirsch from Unit 2?
He suggested that skills are always
contextually related and that it is
impossible to create a skills ladder that
does not take account of the context in
which the skill is deployed.
For example, the way you carry out an investigation in science is
different from the way you investigate in history. Yet investigation is a
skill. The ability to think critically (another skill) depends upon having
sufficient knowledge of the subject you are thinking about.
Brian Male (2013) has argued that there is seldom a need for a skills
ladder, because the increasingly complex knowledge context provides
the necessary progression.
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In this approach, the skill is seen as staying essentially the same, but the context in
which it is deployed becomes increasingly more complex. For example, a young
child can carry out investigation of rolling cars down a slope and can control the
variables of slope and surface etc.
Increasingly, they will be able to carry out more complex investigations (possibly
ending with the Large Hadron Collider!). The skill of investigation has stayed the
same (setting things up, controlling variables, drawing conclusions etc). What
has changed is the level of complexity of the context in which the skill is
Hirsch would argue that this applies to all skills. His research showed that even
reading skills are related to the learner’s knowledge of the subject being read.
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As with the three approaches to assessment, these two approaches
are not being put forward to say that one is right and one wrong
(although, intellectually, they do seem rather mutually exclusive!).
Skills ladders can be very helpful – so long as we remember that
skills do not necessarily develop in such an orderly and hierarchical
It is also useful to consider the complexity of the context as the
criterion of progression.
What is essential is to provide an authentic context in which the
skills can be developed, and in which they can be assessed.
But skills are not the only aspect of development in which we are
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Part 5
A Balanced Scorecard
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The notion of a ‘balanced scorecard’ was
developed for industry by Robert Kaplan and
David Norton of Harvard Business School – but
it has application for schools. It is an attempt to
take account of complexity and avoid a unidimensional approach.
Adapted from Robert S. Kaplan and
David P. Norton, “Using the Balanced
Scorecard as a Strategic Management
System,” Harvard Business Review
(January-February 1996): 76.
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The detail of the Harvard model is not important. What is
significant is taking account of a wide range of those aspects of
development in which we are interested, such as:
Personal development
These are sometimes represented on a ‘star diagram’.
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Each blue line here represents a
different facet of development: skills,
independence, reading ability…..
whatever you are interested in.
The red lines indicate how well this
learner does on each aspect. The
better they do, the further out is the
So we end up with a shaped profile
and can see at a glance the learner’s
strengths and weaknesses.
Of course, we had to go through all the
processes of assessment to get to this
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Whatever approach you take, it is important to remember what we
value and not just to assess those things that are easy to assess.
There was sentence in a Australian Government White Paper on
Education in 2010 which said, ‘we must avoid the mistake of
England which is to over-test against too narrow a range of
We must be confident in the value of teacher assessments over
tests. We must remember how effective our use of formative
assessment can be. And we must remember all those aspects of
development that we really value.
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Part 6
References and Answers
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Do we always measure something in assessment? It depends what you
mean by ‘measure’! If we are trying to find out what a pupil has
learned, then we do not necessarily need to measure in the sense of
attributing a value or a number.
For example, we might want to find out whether a pupil knows the
date of the Battle of Hastings. They either do or don’t know it – so we
are not really measuring; we are just finding out. We are ‘ascertaining’
whether they know it or not.
This works for simple elements of knowledge. But when we come to
more complex understandings, we might want to find out to what extent
a pupil understands something, or how well they can do something.
This implies a measure or the attribution of a value – and the whole
thing gets much more complex!
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There seemed to be sixteen different types of assessment. Did you get
them all? So, what do they all mean? In reality, there are six different
ways of grouping the types: according to purpose, type of questions, the
learning being assessed, referencing and setting. Here we go with the
Purpose: there are different reasons for carrying out assessments:
• Initial is to establish a baseline or starting point
• Formative is to check how learning is progressing to make
adjustments to the course or to teaching as you go along
• Summative is to get a final picture of learning
Types of questions: there are two key types:
• Objective usually involves a single answer or response that does not
require interpretation by the assessor
• Subjective is the opposite – requiring some judgement on the part of
the assessor. This can be minimised by mark schemes and rubrics but
an element of subjectivity will remain.
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The learning being assessed falls into two broad categories:
• Standards-based refers to prescribed expectations in terms of
knowledge and understanding
• Performance-based refers to the ability to perform a task or apply the
knowledge and understanding
Assessments can be referenced, or compared, in different ways.
• Norm-referencing means comparing and individual’s performance to
a group
• Criterion-referencing means comparing it to a set of given criteria
• Ipsative referencing is a comparison to the same individual’s previous
Settings can be formal and informal – and mean exactly what they say!
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Here are the
references for Dylan
The case for formative assessment
The evidence that formative assessment is a powerful lever for
improving outcomes for learners has been steadily accumulating
over the last quarter of a century. Over that time, at least 15
substantial reviews of research, synthesizing several thousand
research studies, have documented the impact of classroom
assessment practices on students:
(Fuchs & Fuchs 1986; Natriello, 1987; Crooks, 1988; BangertDrowns, Kulik, Kulik & Morgan, 1991; Dempster, 1991, 1992; ElshoutMohr, 1994; Kluger & DeNisi, 1996; Black & Wiliam, 1998; Nyquist,
2003; Brookhart, 2004; Allal & Lopez, 2005; Köller, 2005; Brookhart,
2007; Wiliam, 2007; Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Shute, 2008).
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So, that’s it. So it must be homework time.
This time you might like to go back to the unit that you planned
and give consideration to the assessments that you will carry out.
We are usually very precise in the learning objectives we set for
lessons, yet tend to be less precise about the objectives we set for
longer pieces of work. Yet it is over the longer pieces that students
make discernible progress, and assessment is much more
We need to get away from WALT (We all learned to-day) and into
WILITU (What I learned in this unit).
Happy assessing!
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