The challenge of moving towards competency-based student assessments

Assessment of students is essential to measure their individual progress and performance and plan further steps to improve teaching and learning (OECD, 2013c). High-performing education systems balance the use of formative student assessments (assessment for learning) and summative student assessment (assessment of learning) (oECD, 2012). when the pendulum swings too much towards summative assessments there is a risk that tests are perceived to be high stakes. This can lead to negative effects such as summative scores undermining effective formative assessment in the classroom or “teaching to the test” (oECD, 2013c).

There is little evidence to suggest such an imbalance in the latvian school system. The national standards of Compulsory Education prescribe the use of various assessment procedures including self- and peer-evaluation, teacher evaluation, and state examinations. They also highlight the importance of continuous assessment of students by teachers through formative and summative assessments. Various recent projects, such as to improve iCT skills (digital competence), foreign language skills (communication in foreign languages) and entrepreneurial skills (sense of initiative and entrepreneurship) have specifically highlighted the importance of using both types of assessments to support the learning of students, providing training for teachers and supporting materials to do so (MoEs, 2015).

in latvia the national student assessment for the certificate of basic education is taken at the end of Grade 9. The exams taken by students in schools which implement minority language programmes are marked centrally while the others are marked in the school by teachers who did not teach the students and in some cases by the class teacher too (EACEA, 2009; MoEs, 2015). The national Centre for Education informed us that they have found some evidence of variable marking of these exams by teachers, which reduces their reliability and usefulness for monitoring purposes.

This may be an issue for MoEs to investigate further, considering it is about to start the implementation of a new curriculum. The move from a largely knowledge-based curriculum to a competency-based one will be challenging for those teachers not sufficiently familiar with and/or confident about teaching towards and assessing against competency-based learning objectives. Though much training has been provided to promote competency-based teaching approaches in recent years, latvia has many long-serving teachers, many of whom will have worked for over two decades with a curriculum based on knowledge requirements, and may therefore find the transition challenging.

MoEs should not underestimate the complexity of implementing a new curriculum. it should ensure adequate capacity-building support and provide supporting materials to help teachers align their teaching and assessments of student learning to the new competency-based learning outcomes. Latvia could look to the examples of Finland or scotland (the united Kingdom) in this area. in Finland, for example, “learning to learn” skills are considered to be central to each student’s development. To evaluate and promote the importance of such skills, national sample-based assessments were developed by the Centre of Educational Assessment at the university of Helsinki to evaluate the “learning to learn” skills of students in Grade 3, 6 and 9 of compulsory education (OECD, 2013c).

scotland’s implementation of the Curriculum for Excellence is another example Latvia could learn from. This curriculum typifies many international trends in curricular policy, through its emphasis on generic skills and competences, its focus on pedagogy and its apparent extension of autonomy to teachers as agents of change (Priestley and Minty, 2013). scotland’s approach is often considered to be good practice in how to design and implement a contemporary curriculum (OECD, 2015, forthcoming; Priestley and Minty, 2013), it however expects a great deal of teachers, including its assessment demands (Box 3.6).

Box 3.6. The design and implementation of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence

The implementation of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) for 3-18 year-olds started in 2004 and has been introduced in various forms over the period since then. It has also been adopted as a holistic approach to school improvement, steering the values and dispositions that can motivate students to excel. While specific subjects are an essential feature of the curriculum, particularly in secondary school, the curriculum is more outcome oriented than subject oriented, promoting a comprehensive and interdisciplinary approach.

Since the start of the CfE various stakeholders, such as students, parents and local authorities, have been encouraged to contribute to the curriculum. For example, writing teams were formed for each curriculum area, brought in from the classroom and other posts in education to develop the “experiences and outcomes” that define specific goals of the curriculum. The draft experiences and outcomes were published online and were accompanied by an online questionnaire so that anyone with an interest in education could be part of the feedback and revision process.

The CfE allows schools and local authorities to review and redesign their curriculum through a collaborative process “Building your Curriculum” that involve partners in the school community. Materials have been developed to engage students, parents and school staff in the process, including workshop toolkits, a template for curriculum planning and sample curriculum plans. Also, teachers were provided with numerous exemplars, particularly to support their evaluation and assessment practices. The framework for assessment was developed to provide detailed guidance for practitioners. As a key component of the framework, the National Assessment Resource, an online resource, was launched in 2011 to support assessment approaches by providing assessment materials and examples.

Box 3.6. The design and implementation of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (continued)

on the other hand, research suggests that teachers have different understandings of the purposes and philosophy of the CfE. many teachers expressed anxiety as they tried to move from the prior prescriptive curriculum to one with greater teacher autonomy, particularly in relation to assessment. These findings point to the importance of raising the capacity of individual teachers through continuing professional development as well as changing the cultural and structural conditions.

Sources: oECD (forthcoming), Policy Review of Scottish Curriculum for Excellence, oECD Publishing, Paris; Priestley, M. and s. minty (2013), “Curriculum for Excellence: ‘A brilliant idea, but...’”, Scottish Educational Review, Vol. 45/1, pp. 39-52; Education Scotland (2010), “What is Curriculum for Excellence?”, whatiscurriculumforexcellence/.

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