Meeting the learning needs of all their students is a complex and demanding job for schools. How well students achieve at a school depends on such factors as how well teachers engage with their students and the relationships schools have with their students’ families and whānau. However the assessment of student achievement, or knowing what students know and can do, is fundamental to effective teaching and to students’ learning. Unless teachers know their students well and are knowledgeable about their achievements, they cannot be confident that their teaching is meeting the learning needs of their students.

From this study ERO found that schools faced several challenges in improving the quality of assessment practices and processes. These are discussed below under four headings: understanding assessment; collecting assessment information; analysing assessment information; and using assessment information.

Understanding assessment

Schools need good quality information on their students’ achievements to make both day-to-day and long-term decisions on how best to improve outcomes for students. For assessment systems across a school to work well, school managers, teachers and students need to be aware of the rationale that underpins the decisions being made about assessment.

In many schools in this study teachers did not have consistent and coherent understanding about the purposes of assessment and how the information would be used. This resulted in disjointed assessment activities that were not well integrated into the teaching and learning programmes or reflective of the learning priorities of the school.

ERO found a general need for teachers to improve their assessment literacy.Assessment literacy encompasses teachers’ knowledge about learners, learning and how to gauge that learning; their skills to examine achievement data and make sense of it; and their ability to use that data effectively to make improvements to their teaching, their curriculum management and the organisation of their school.

When teachers did not have high levels of assessment literacy, the effectiveness and usefulness of their assessment practices was affected. This resulted in:

  • teachers investing a great deal of time and resources into assessment activities that were not useful in diagnosing students’ learning needs, informing their learning or improving teaching programmes;
  • teachers gathering assessment information that was not useful to or used by other teachers;
  • school managers and teachers having limited understanding about the fitness of the planned assessment activities for their purpose. In many cases, the information gathered through assessment tasks would not accurately measure students’ achievements and understandings of important educational concepts and conclusions drawn about students’ achievements could be misleading; and
  • inappropriate or overuse of formative assessment strategies such as the development of learning intentions. When used well, these strategies enhanced students’ learning. When they were not well understood or well implemented, the students did not benefit from the formative assessment activities.

Collecting assessment information

Teachers’ information on student achievement should demonstrate what students have achieved and the progress they have made over time. This information can be drawn from a wide range of sources including the knowledge gained by teachers in their day‑to‑day interactions with students; analysis of students’ work and from more formally designed and administered assessment tasks. The information must be rich enough to provide comprehensive information about what students have achieved and their future learning requirements.

In almost all primary schools the teachers gathered information that accurately demonstrated their students’ achievements and progress in aspects of English and mathematics. They were less effective at gathering information in other curriculum areas that demonstrated their students’ achievements and progress accurately and effectively. Effective assessment practices established in English and mathematics were not being transferred to other curriculum areas.

Secondary school teachers were generally more effective than primary teachers in gathering assessment information that demonstrated students’ achievements within the respective curriculum areas. However, very few secondary schools had gathered information that effectively demonstrated students’ progress in all curriculum areas and were unable to show students’ progress over time.

Many schools reported a substantial investment, in terms of time and resources, in professional development activities related to assessment. Schools now need to develop ways of transferring the good practices learnt through professional development to all curriculum areas.

Analysing assessment information

Many teachers and school managers found the process of analysing and interpreting the results of students’ assessment activities difficult and challenging. ERO found a widespread need for school personnel to improve their data literacy – their ability to analyse both numeric and narrative assessment information accurately and proficiently and interpret the results so that they are understood by all potential users of the information including trustees, school managers, teachers, students, parents and the schools’ communities.

When teachers and school managers did not have a functional level of data literacy they were unable to analyse and use assessment information well and might draw incorrect conclusions from the assessment results. Decisions about students’ further learning could, as a consequence, be based on flawed information.

Using assessment information

The time and effort required to gather and analyse assessment information is only worthwhile if that information is used to improve outcomes for students. In this evaluation ERO reviewed how effectively information about students’ achievements was used by teachers to improve teaching and learning by students for further learning; by school managers and trustees to review programme and resourcing decisions; and to report to the school’s communities.

Students, teachers and school managers can use assessment information to improve learning only when they have:

  • collected good quality information that fairly represents what students know and can do;
  • analysed the information to accurately determine the achievements of students; and
  • correctly interpreted the information to report the achievements and progress of individual and groups of students and to identify their next learning steps.

When students are well informed about their achievements, progress and next learning steps they are better equipped to make good decisions about their own future learning. In many schools teachers were neither using good quality formative assessment strategies including having rich conversations with students about their learning; nor ensuring students understood the purpose and success criteria of learning activities; nor giving students effective and useful feedback. In these schools the students were not well informed about how well they were achieving or what they needed to do to improve their learning.

Students’ learning and achievements do not happen only in classrooms. Parents, families and schools’ communities should be active contributors to their children’s learning. They need to base their decisions on comprehensive, good quality information on students’ knowledge, abilities and learning needs. Only half the schools in this study reported achievement information to parents and the community effectively. A true three-way learning partnership of student-school-community can occur only when all parties are fully informed about achievements and progress.

ERO found that many schools did not effectively use the information gathered about students’ achievement to identify groups of students that needed extra assistance. It is unrealistic for schools to identify and monitor the progress of every aspect of diversity within their school. However, there are some groups of students in each school whose progress and experiences should be closely observed.

These groups of students should include:

  • the students whose assessment information shows that they may not be achieving to their full potential;
  • groups of students (particular to each school’s differing context and communities) that make up significant proportions of the schools’ roll; and
  • groups of students who have comparatively low success rates in attaining national qualifications.

Noting the disparity of achievement between groups of students is not sufficient - schools must work actively at addressing disparities. Schools need to identify the groups of students whose progress they will monitor and gather comprehensive data on their achievements. The information will provide a basis for identifying any trends and patterns in students’ achievements and for comparing the achievements of groups of students in the school. The teachers and school managers will then be able to make evidence-based decisions on how to meet the needs of their students.

Supporting assessment practices

This and other ERO evaluations have shown that, overall, assessment practice in schools can be considerably improved. While the Government has invested considerable resources in professional development programmes and developing assessment tools, with a strong focus on literacy and numeracy, this evaluation shows that many schools still need help in developing school-wide assessment policies, procedures and practices across all aspects of students’ learning.