One size doesn’t fit all – so why do we do it?

At this stage in the Australian school year most teachers are at least thinking about, if not writing, reports. It is always a time for reflections, calculations and wondering. This year I’m wondering more than ever. My eldest child is having school visits as he makes that transition from Kindy to Primary School. At my first parent information night where I was on the receiving end rather than the delivery end of the information, we were reminded that children progress and develop at different rates, just as they have since they were babies. That some will cope well with having to be organised right from day one but that others will need more help in getting settled and managing the school routines. This, together with pondering some ‘tricky’ reports, has got me thinking…

We know that our students are all different, have individual strengths and interests, areas to work on and things they find downright overwhelming. They are human. Why then do we insist on assessing and reporting with a one size fits all (or at least most) approach? I know, government requirements mean we must give students an A-E grade. But what do those letters actually mean and what do they really say about a student? Even with a supporting comment, often limited to 400 or so characters including spaces and punctuation, what do they show about a student’s development throughout the year?

If a student has always received an ‘A’ grade, worked independently, self-motivated yada yada yada, what is my report saying that the parent and student don’t already know? Likewise, if a student struggles with the assessments that are standard for the class but scrapes together a ‘C’ grade, what am I telling them besides “you’re just on average” and what good does it do their learning? How does it show them their progress, which is generally considerable, given they entered the language classroom with little or no exposure to the language previously?

I also wonder why assessments in High School are so often standardised and made ‘common’. I used to be able to tailor tasks to my classes to suit their needs, but the whole class still had to be doing roughly the same tasks. Now, due to circumstances beyond my control, all Year 8 German students have to do exactly the same task in the same way and preferably in the same week. The students I can ‘modify’ tasks for have to have a diagnosed and documented learning difficulty. But if all my students are different and still developing at different rates and in different ways like they did as babies and in Primary School, why can’t I allow them to demonstrate their understanding and learning in a variety of ways and in their own time?

Yes, I know, they need to have a balance of the four key skills of language – Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking. I would also like to add in Intercultural Understandings in it’s own right, but I do not have that ability so for now it is thrown in with the rest depending on what form the assessment took. And yes, I can ‘tweek’ the task to give students some choice about how they present it: “If you don’t want to do a poster that’s fine, just make sure you do it in a way that includes writing” for example. But why is the assessment even divided up into formative and summative? Why does only the summative ‘count’ when the formative shows learning along the way?

A question from Louiza Hebhardt on last week’s #teacherwellbeingchat on Twitter got me thinking: “If you were a parent what feedback would you consider most valuable?”  If you could rewrite assessment and reporting requirements, how would it look? As my child starts school I want to know if he is making forward progress from one term, semester or year to the next. I don’t want him compared to other students, although I know routine standardised test like NAPLAN may help pick up otherwise unrecognised delays in his learning and development. I don’t want him to get an ‘A’ if he is bored and could be challenged more and I don’t want him getting a ‘D’ if it means he should be working at a different level. So if I could redesign assessment and reporting, I’m currently favouring a continuous portfolio of work to show how a student has developed, how their learning and understanding have grown compared to where they were at the start of the year. Much like the scrap book he has brought home from Child Care with pictures and anecdotes from when he was 11 months old until now – I can distinctly see that he has made progress! Perhaps returning to a system where students are profiled against levels and outcomes they’ve demonstrated. Maybe at the start of the year they’re at Level 2 but by the end of the year they’re at 2.7 or 3… Comparing the student only to him or herself.

I can do roughly this with one of my students, a young lady with Downes Syndrome – her ‘C’ means she has met the outcomes her parents and I negotiated at the start of the year, a ‘D’ would mean she needed assistance to demonstrate the outcomes but a ‘B’ would mean she exceeded them. She has obtained her ‘C’. Her parents know exactly what it means and are proud of her because of it! We compare her only to herself and where she was at the start of the year.

On the other hand I have Mr A+, a student with Aspbergers Syndrome, who is so focussed on “learning for the test” that he refuses to complete practice activities and games. I would like to be able to not give him the ‘A+’, but under the current system he is sitting on 99% and he knows it, so I have little choice! I think he would learn more if he were compared against a description that shows that he knows a variety of words and can use them in highly rehearsed situations, and where the next description level shows students beginning to use the vocabulary and structures creatively or for his own expression. I wish I could compare him to himself and show him that despite another ‘A+’ he is yet to make any real progress in his language skills besides adding words. Thankfully, I can add something to this effect in his comment box!


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