Education

Don't be afraid of assessments at school

Barbara Dale-Jones

They are a source of useful information that can help to make teaching better.

Graphic: John McCann

The Annual National Assessments (ANA), when all schools in the country conduct the same grade-specific language and mathematics tests for grades one to six and for grade nine, should be treated as a developmental opportunity for teachers in South Africa. 

Teachers should be enabled to engage at the centre of test analysis in their own classrooms so that they develop their pedagogical content knowledge and improve the performance of pupils. This is intrinsic to the purpose of the ANAs — namely, not only to provide a system-level measure of learner achievement in key subjects, but also to guide interventions at the school and learner levels. 

The latest Teachers Upfront seminar, held recently at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, focused on how teachers can use the ANAs to improve learning by ensuring that its assessment data leads to appropriate teaching interventions as opposed to teaching to the test.

National policy articulates the purpose of the ANAs. The basic education department's Action Plan to 2014: Towards the Realisation of Schooling 2025 states that the ANAs aim to provide examples of assessment standards and methods, better-targeted district support and an evaluation of school performance and information for school governing bodies, principals, teachers and parents. A key value of the ANAs as a universal assessment is that they can assist teachers to identify areas in which remediating strategies are needed. 

Ingrid Sapire, a research project co-ordinator at the University of the Witwatersrand, described at the seminar a pilot project recently undertaken to establish whether teachers in South Africa are using assessment data successfully and how they can be assisted more effectively to use this data to inform their teaching. 

The ability to analyse
The results of the project showed that in many cases "teachers can easily point out their classes' weaknesses and strengths in general terms, as well as [identify] which pupils need additional support. This indicates their focus on overall marks and trends but it is a more difficult practice to analyse questions and answers in depth because this requires well-established pedagogical content knowledge". 

"Teachers are often more competent in identifying what their learners know than in coming up with strategies to close the gaps between learners' knowledge and what they are expected to know," Sapire said.

As a result, "educators should have assistance in establishing the links between what the gaps in teaching are and how to go about fixing them. It is definitely not enough to instruct teachers to develop academic improvement plans, essentially a compliance approach, without training and supporting them in the nitty-gritty of coming up with remedial actions, which is a more developmental approach."

One way in which teachers can do this is by using an "error analysis activity template" in relation to their own pupils' work, and in this way helping to ensure that teachers are put at the centre of error analysis in their own classrooms. 

Sapire said that "a focus on errors, as evidence of reasonable and interesting mathematical thinking on the part of learners, helps teachers to understand learner thinking, to adjust the ways they engage with learners in the classroom situation and to revise their teaching". 

A revised approach
Error analysis is especially useful because, when teachers analyse the procedure a learner has followed, they usually themselves gain a better understanding of the concept they are teaching. This implies the need for a revised approach to teacher development, including the use of error analysis and mediated professional learning communities in which teachers can engage with peers about learner errors.

Maria Vaz and Fikile Simelane, teachers at the University of Johannesburg's Funda uJabule teaching school, confirmed the diagnostic value of the ANAs and how their data can be practically used. Vaz described the testing as "a diagnostic tool; its focus is on mathematics and language, and it's a tool for teachers to use in order to assess and improve their own teaching in these areas but can also be used by school management teams to make decisions about their schools, all of which is about using data to make teaching better and to address instruction". 

Simelane added that "teachers should do question analysis and error analysis: they must refer back to their learners' needs when they plan to teach — and the school management team should monitor this process and use it as a development opportunity for teachers". 

Cathy Hastie, a teacher, examiner, marker and television presenter on Mindset Learn, provided a review of the problem areas highlighted by the 2013 ANAs analysis and gave advice to teachers on how to address these areas effectively. She, too, confirmed the value of the ANAs as diagnostic tests that show teachers where pupils' problem areas are. She called on teachers to use the ANAs as a diagnostic tool and summative assessment, which would allow teachers to adjust their pedagogical approach. 

"Check whether you as a teacher got through to the learners, use a variety of strategies and methods, think of different ways to teach the same thing, use different language each time you teach a concept, use the correct grade-appropriate language and use meaningful and practical examples," she said. 

Teachers should align their teaching practice to assessment, but Hastie also encouraged teachers not to be fearful of the ANAs. Rather, "enjoy teaching, make the subject fun, make every lesson count, make it seem easy, and the more the learners practise, the better they will do".

The idea that teachers should be excited about teaching and that the knowledge, determination, adaptability and motivation of the teacher are key ingredients in successful learning was reinforced by the members of the seminar's audience, who supported the call for teachers to collaborate and engage in professional learning communities, in which they can learn from one other and improve their practice. 

Barbara Dale-Jones is chief executive officer of the Bridge education network. Teachers Upfront is hosted by Bridge, the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, the Mail & Guardian, the University of the Witwatersrand's school of education and the University of Johannesburg's faculty of education

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