Assessment with Rooty Hill High School – What works best podcast

This podcast was originally published 14 August 2020.

This podcast is part of an eight-part series. In this podcast, Mark Scott, former Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, explores embedding assessment in school practice at Rooty Hill High School. From developing assessment-centred classrooms, to empowering students to identify and monitor their progress, hear how Rooty Hill is improving student outcomes.

Mark Scott speaks with Rooty Hill High School Principal, Christine Cawsey and her students.

Intro: Welcome to a special CESE podcast series on the What works best 2020 update. For the next eight weeks join the Secretary of the NSW Department of Education, Mark Scott, as he speaks with schools and students, like me, about effective teaching practices that support student academic achievements.

Mark Scott: Chris Cawsey, Rooty Hill High School, there’s a lot of focus on the way you approach assessment there. Why is student assessment so important? And why is it a key strategy in you running a whole effective school?

Chris Cawsey: Look, I think if I could say that we define assessment in the Geoff Masters language of a point in time judgement about progress or attainment. Now, whether that point in time happens in class, or whether that point in time happens perhaps doing a special program like entrepreneurial learning. Whatever it is, that point in time judgement could be NAPLAN, it could be HSC – an HSC examination, but it is a point in time judgement. And to take it back then into the light is so important in the school. We’re increasingly seeing ourselves as being an assessment-centred school. And our classrooms as assessment-centred. Because if we know what students know, and we know that they know how – which we used to call in the old days ‘know-how’ – and then we know that they can demonstrate their knowledge and their know-how in various tasks that they complete in learning, both theoretical and practical. And then we know as they progress through school, as our Year 12 students demonstrate, that they actually know when to select and choose those things. And they can use them routinely as part of their repertoire, then that’s why assessment matters. Rather than assessing students, we like to think about assessing the learning.

Mark Scott: It’s really interesting talking with you about this, Chris, because we know assessment can be quite controversial. There’s a lot of focus on a narrow number of big external assessments. But you seem to be embedding assessment. What are the key elements of the effective assessment practise that you’ve developed there?

Chris Cawsey: I think I’d like to mention three elements. There are more. And of course, assessment is pretty complex. And it’s not that well understood in many ways. But if I could just mention three perhaps. One is that we use a lot of Dylan Wiliam’s work – short, a medium, and long cycle assessment. So short cycle assessment we use extensively to be able to look at what we’re doing in the moment. So that’s when students talk about doing a self-assessment, or teacher feedback, it’s very much about what’s happening within a lesson or a couple of lessons. And the medium cycle kind of work that we’re doing takes longer. It’s what you’re learning across a period of time and how you’re assessing it both progressively and then what the final product is. And of course, longer term assessment, the long cycle is often tested by external testing. So the second key element of our work is that we focus on triangulating our data. Individual snapshots like NAPLAN are really only useful to students and to schools if you’re able then to triangulate them against what you’ve already done. So if we have student and peer assessment and teacher assessment, which is the more traditional in-class kind of assessment and assessment tasks, and then we triangulate that with external data, then we really can see ourselves in the lucky position of being able to look at, is there a pattern, which is the third element that we look for. Is there a pattern of evidence that showed us that this student is making progress in their learning? Because learning isn’t performance. Performance is that snapshot judgement in time. So those three elements really matter in our assessment design.

Mark Scott: You run a big, complex, comprehensive secondary school. If I listen to you talk about that thoughtful and strategic approach to assessment, how do you in a sense operationalise that at the school? How are you assured that that’s the practise that’s rolling out in all your classrooms? And then how are teachers using that to inform their teaching practise?

Chris Cawsey: The easier way to answer that is to go back and say, that if you’ve looking at how do you put that in place and ensure it, you really need to come back to the notion of the assessment centred classroom. Language that’s come out of the research really in the last 20 years is that it won’t work unless assessment drives the design of learning, and assessment drives the delivery of that learning with - and accommodations for particular students. The three ways we do it essentially in the short cycle is that we use John Hattie and others’ work around having really clear learning intentions tied to syllabus outcomes. And that includes skills and knowledge. And then having a success criteria against which students can make a judgement for themselves, and teachers can make a judgement. So in that short cycle, having that for every lesson, every day, that’s critical. In the medium cycle, we use capability driven assessment a lot. And what our students would tell you is that they are able to create work samples, that they annotate those work samples, and then they’re able to upload them and have them validated. The work sample is important, because they choose it. But the annotation is even more so, because they demonstrate against the benchmarks, the CARA benchmarks for example, for skills. Or syllabus outcomes, what they’re able to do. But to really ensure that this happens, you need the longer term cycle for your professional learning and your professional staff. And we use outcomes-based accountability. We want to know how much we’ve done, how we’ve designed lessons, and all those sorts of things, how well we have done it, did it work, was that lesson effective. And we’ll get that information from the feedback that students give us and the feedback we give them. And then, has it made any difference? And that’s where we do need to have external evidence. Whether that’s in critical and creative thinking, or literacy or numeracy, all of those kinds of things, we need to actually know that we’re making a difference in the learning design that we’re putting in place. We ask our teachers to tell the story behind the curve for their classes. To actually explain why it happened the way it did, what students learnt, what they wouldn’t do again, what kinds of programs, what kinds of lesson strategies worked best. And we ask them to continually assess.

Mark Scott: It just strikes me, Chris, that there’s so much in a sense deliberative planning and thought that you’ve clearly done there with your leadership team, to be able to embed assessment as a central part of your learning programs there at Rooty Hill.

Chris Cawsey: I’d like to be able to say to you, Mark, that this happens when a leadership team leads. But in fact, this actually happens when you can design high quality professional experiences for your staff, and the whole staff learn together. And the whole staff work together in order to embed this practise. And one of the absolute belief of Rooty Hill High School is that teacher assessment, school assessment, student assessment needs to be on the agenda constantly, where we’re looking at how do we design the kind of learning that the students, the staff, and the school needs in order to be able to put this in place in every classroom. And yes, we’ve got a great leadership team, but it’s a very big team and some of our youngest members of staff, who are pretty clever, are also contributing very much to the journey we’re taking.

Mark Scott: Hey, Chris, thanks so much for that. In a way what you’ve done, the way you bring that whole staff together, this is who we are, this is what we do, this is what the evidence says is important. And in a sense the disciplined execution of what the evidence says is important, I think that is a key differential here. You know, there’s such interesting work on strategy that’s been done that says actually, you can be a fundamentalist about strategy, but there are different approaches that you can take to a whole lot of problems. The key differential is can you execute the strategy that you have? And I think there are lots of good intentions, but the ability to be able to bring a leadership team and then a broader school community together and say, this is who we are, this is how it works. And to be in a sense strong enough in leadership to have that expectation, that’s a real driver of results too. And I think you can see that in even the Hattie work on collective efficacy.

Chris Cawsey: Yeah.

Mark Scott: Do we all understand what we’re trying to do here. So it’s a great story. All right. Thanks for that.

Chris Cawsey: Okay. Thank you very much. My pleasure. Bye.

Mark Scott: Bye.

Mark Scott: So let’s talk about the student experience of assessment at Rooty Hill. What are some of the ways that your progress is assessed at the school?

Tarsha Daly Year 12 student: We use both external assessments, our exams and assessments tasks, and as well as self-assessment to measure how students are going with content as well as how well they’re going with skills and capabilities. Our focus on student agency and how they develop their own skills and abilities to problem solve is something that makes us different from how other schools might assess their progress.

Mark Scott: So that’s kind of interesting to me. So of course, there are external assessments that we all know about. But you’re saying at Rooty Hill, the assessment program that you have, the assessments that you’re doing yourself around your progress is equally weighted and important and is a key for you identifying your progress?

Tarsha Daly: Yeah. We have a focus on letting students write their own reports in their own way of measuring how well they are progressing in the subject. And it focusses both on how well you’re doing in content, as well as how you’re developing the skills to be able to complete that subject.

Mark Scott: Why do you think assessments are important? And what value do you get out of a good assessment program at the school?

Rumman Memom Year 12 student: Well, they’re important because they test our skills and knowledge that we currently have. So for example, in essays, we’re tested on how we’re able to prove our points and how we’re able to back it up. And but without them, we wouldn’t know what we’d be doing and how we could improve our skills and knowledge. And they hold such value because it helps us to improve ourselves. But without that, we wouldn’t know what we’d be doing.

Mark Scott: I mean, what’s interested I think about this as a case study, is that I think around the state we think teachers need to be experts in assessments. But it appears at Rooty Hill, students are becoming experts at assessment themselves, monitoring their own progress, monitoring where they need to go to next. And there’s a real responsibility about assessment that’s put on you as students at the school. I mean, if you were a teacher, how would you be assessing a student’s progress? And pick a subject for me and tell me how you think a good teacher can identify student progress through assessment?

Chad Zahra Year 12 student: I reckon if I’m a teacher looking for progress in my students, I’d keep it the same way that it is. Do like take home assignments or through an exam. So with a take home assignment, where we would give some current feedback to the student to help them progress and give them feedback and drafts during class. But then also with an exam, it tests the student to think on their feet critically and in that moment, so it also shows their progress in being able to remember the content being learnt. And to apply it into different scenarios. I also feel it also helps the teachers see how they’re teaching their students. They’re able to know if what they’re teaching has come across to the students, and if it’s being understood.

Mark Scott: One of the things that strikes me listening to the three of you is that assessment gets a lot of attention, it gets a lot of attention in the media, and some of the big assessments that we have, like NAPLAN and the HSC, they get a lot of media attention too, and there can be pressure about it. But you seem to be indicating that at Rooty Hill, assessment is really just part of the way of life in going to school. And it’s a regular part of the way that you learn there. The assessments that are provided by your teachers, but also that self-assessment process that you’re putting yourselves through. And it’s just a regular part of the fabric of learning at Rooty Hill.

Chad Zahra: Yeah. We like to use a little thing called My Learning Hub. So it allows the students to apply evidence from their own work and to reflect on how well they’ve done for that specific subject. So they’re able to apply the evidence into our website and then write a reflection on what they did in that class, how it worked, what it is, and how well they think they did it effectively.

Mark Scott: Thank you, guys. I appreciate that. That’s been terrific.

Outro: Thanks for listening to this special What works best podcast series, produced by the Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation or CESE. Tune in next week for a new episode.


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