How can secondary schools enact assessment policy for students with disabilities?
Assessment for Learning (AfL), or formative assessment, refers to the frequent assessment of students' academic progress so as to identify their learning needs and inform the next phase of teaching and learning. AfL has won increasing recognition within curriculum policy in Australia, but at the same time raises challenges for teachers, particularly when applied to students with a disability (SWD). This article describes the success of a middle-level leader in a Queensland secondary school in the implementation of AfL for such students.
Implementing formative assessment for students with disabilities
Academic literature points to a number of ways in which AfL improves student learning. AfL helps to align teaching, curriculum and assessment, as teachers adjust their practice in response to frequent assessments of student work (Black & Wiliam 1998; Black et al. 2007 p 91). It also helps to create a shared understanding between teachers: through the moderation process they share interpretations of assessment tasks and develop a common language for describing and assessing students' work (Wyatt-Smith & Klenowski 2008; Klenowski & Adie 2009).
However, the potential for formative assessment to improve student learning may be obscured by an emphasis on summative scores resulting from the influence of high-stakes testing, or simply by teachers' lack of familiarity with student-centered assessment methods such as AfL. The implementation of AfL for SWD presents a further level of challenge for schools and teachers.
Any adjustment of the curriculum and assessment methods for SWD tends to be difficult in secondary schools, due to highly structured timetabling, limited teaching time and limited parental involvement. Schools' efforts to meet legislative requirements and education system policy regarding SWD are also complicated by limited coverage of these issues in pre-service training and subsequent professional learning; time consuming departmental processes; limited resourcing for SWD; lack of planning time to implement policy; difficulties maintaining discipline; and the difficulty of providing academic challenge to diverse groups of students (Horne & Timmons 2007; Lindsay 2004; Shaddock, Smyth-King & Girocelli 2007).
A starting point for overcoming these hurdles is having clear and useful policy guidance from the education system. Education Queensland offers such a policy. Its P–12 Curriculum Framework Guidelines for SWD set out clear expectations that schools and teachers 'enable all students, including students with disabilities, to access and achieve the learning described in the mandated curriculum document', (Queensland Government 2008). It also recognizes that teachers need opportunities to work collaboratively in planning curriculum that is flexible enough to provide multiple opportunities for all students to learn. The guidelines are part of the Queensland Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Framework (QCAR).
To apply curriculum policy effectively on the ground, however, school leaders need to present it in a way that makes sense to teachers in their local context; establishes shared beliefs on these issues amongst the teaching staff; gives teachers relevant professional learning opportunities; and provides opportunities for collaborative curriculum planning.
An example of successful local implementation
The rest of this article describes how the guidelines have been applied at a large special education program (SEP) in a Queensland secondary school, in a way that has been acknowledged as successful by the educational community. The implementation of the curriculum policy was led by the Head of Special Education Services (HOSES) at the school, Christine (a pseudonym), who described the process during a conversation with the author.
Prior to the implementation of the Queensland Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Framework (QCAR) Christine had already done a lot of groundwork changing the mindset of staff about curriculum from one centered in subject content to a student centered approach. When QCAR was launched Christine saw the opportunity it offered to advance on the issue of AfL for SWD.
Integrating SWD into the general learning environment
To implement AfL for SWD she had to confront a number of existing understandings and practices at the school.
One challenge was to overcome the conceptual and organisational division between general and special education staff and develop a common language based on the curriculum and the needs of students. An important step in this process was the introduction of co-teaching between SEP and mainstream teaching staff. Every class with a SWD became co-taught by a SEP and a general education teacher and the two teachers planned assessment collaboratively. The SEP teacher took on the role of the disability specialist who knew what adjustments were needed for the SWD. The general education teacher took on the role of curriculum specialist ensuring the rigor of the key learning area (KLA) was maintained.
Another key task was to overcome SEP teachers' lowered academic expectations regarding SWD, which led the teachers to focus only on functional life skills for these students, rather than on the curriculum as a whole. For example, prior to the reform process SWD were not offered the chance to learn a foreign language. After changes to attitude and practice, SWD were offered this chance. One of the year-level language prizes at the school was subsequently won by a student with a disability.
Aligning the mandated state curriculum to the individual needs of students also involved substantial improvement in the curriculum knowledge of the SEP staff. Christine expected staff to undertake extensive professional learning in this area, and sometimes this involved 'tough conversations', including reference to human resource options such as offering transfers to teachers who were not willing to revise work practices.
Implementing Assessment for Learning
Another challenge for Christine was to establish common and shared beliefs and actions about AfL, achieved through professional learning activities. Both special and general education teachers attended formal curriculum professional development as a team. During these events they established shared beliefs about learning based upon high expectations for all learners. Planning curriculum units became a learning experience itself when the team worked collaboratively to align individual goals to the content and assessment standards. The end result of the process was the establishment of a learner-centred environment where AfL has been successfully integrated into learning and teaching for the student population, including SWD. Teachers now plan a range of options for all students so they can demonstrate their learning. Every child maintains a portfolio of work for every KLA. They receive feedback about their achievement on every task in that portfolio and can see overall how they are progressing towards a particular standard – A, B, C, D or E. They also have the opportunity to re-submit some items after feedback for a better mark. The students then decide when they have completed their portfolio which items they will submit for the final mark. The criteria for these assessment items are determined by the team of teachers, and items are judged and moderated against the standard being assessed. The team is very explicit about what is being assessed and ensures that their teaching supports this. The students' achievement is compared against their achievement of the standard not against each other.
Education systems need to provide schools with clear policy guidance and evidence-based directions as a first step in meeting the difficult task of reforming assessment for SWD, or any learner with diverse learning needs. The leadership response is then to support and challenge teachers at the school level in the change process required to enact policy effectively. Examples of success shared between schools may help them meet this challenge.
Black, P & Wiliam, D 1998, Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80, 139–147.
Black, P, Harrison, C, Lee, C, Marshall, B & William, D 2003, Assessment for Learning: Putting It into Practice, United Kingdom: Open University Press.
Black-Hawkins, Florian L & Rouse, M 2007, Achievement and inclusion in secondary schools, New York: Routledge.
Horne, P & Timmons, V 2007, Making it Work: Teachers' Perspectives On Inclusion, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 10, 1–14.
Klenowski, V & Adie, L 2009, Moderation as judgement practice: Reconciling system level accountability and local level practice, Curriculum Perspectives, 29, (1),10–28.
Lindsay, K 2004, Asking for the Moon'? A Critical Assessment of Australian Disability Laws in Promoting Inclusion for Students with Disabilities, International Journal of Inclusive Education 8, 373–390.
Queensland Government, Department of Training and the Arts, 2008, P–12 Curriculum Framework.
Shaddock, A & Smyth-King, B & Giorcelli, L 2007, Project to Improve the Learning Outcomes of Students with Disabilities in the Early, Middle and Post Compulsory Years of Schooling. Canberra.
Wyatt-Smith, C & Klenowski, V 2008, Examining how moderation is enacted within an assessment policy reform initiative: You just have to learn how to see, in: 34th International Association for Educational Assessment (IAEA) Annual Conference, 7–12 September 2008, England, Cambridge.
Teaching and learning