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Issues In Educational Research, Vol 15, 2005
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Assessment in multiage primary classrooms

Nita C. Lester
Griffith University
To enable teachers to become 'transformative intellectuals' (Huckle, 1996), a critical form of educational inquiry that enables them to investigate their practice, is required (Robottom, 1987). Such an approach was used in developing assessment resources and materials with teachers, not for teachers. The important thing is to help teachers help themselves by sharing with them ways of developing the tools and skills of assessment. This paper describes how I engaged teachers in a process of mobilising 'assessment capital' through a participatory action research approach. This was used for the development of assessment resources and materials, in order to foster improved student engagement and learning. A case study of one school is presented in this paper. This school had multiage classes. The case study highlights the potential role of teachers as transformative intellectuals in schools.

A variety of assessment resources and materials are developed in all schools independently and often teachers work in isolation within their classrooms. These tools and skills of assessment are referred to as assessment capital. My argument is that it is time for individual teachers and assessment experts to share this capital with other teachers in ways that enable them to design assessment resources and materials together for the whole school. A whole school perspective is especially important for multiage schools because students often spend a number of years with the one teacher before moving into another multiage group. Spending years with one teacher may be detrimental if standards are not maintained. A smooth, seamless whole school understanding of assessment processes increases student outcomes and engagement (Perkins & Blythe, 1994). However, this should not imply imposing an outsider's agenda and mission on schools. Rather, it requires the formation of genuine partnerships between teachers, schools and assessment experts. This will ensure the creation of professional competencies that can support sustained material development.

It was on this premise that I engaged a group of teachers from four schools in a process of mobilising assessment capital. By drawing on features of participatory action research, I created forums for teachers to collectively understand how assessment resources and materials can be developed and used. These forums provided opportunities for partnerships to develop between schools, between teachers and myself.

Through the forums which included a series of workshops, focus groups and critical reviews of textual assessment materials, I engaged teachers in examining their understanding, skills and processes relating to assessment resources and materials. The methods and educational perspectives underlying assessment practice in the school were explored. In this way assessment capital was mobilised and made available for actual development of resources and materials in all four schools. Early visits revealed the existence of a number of assessment resources which had the potential to foster improved learning outcomes in the schools. A review of how these materials were developed and used provided useful insights on how to develop and write assessment materials.

Assessment as student improvement

Many recent researchers and writers of policies for educational systems have defined assessment in terms of promoting, assisting and improving students' learning or informing the school of learning and teaching. The resultant data can be used to communicate the progress and achievement of individual students and groups of students to all stakeholders (McCann, 1996; Coil, 1996; Education Queensland, 2001; Linn, 1994; Williams et al, 1999).

Traditionally, assessment was a means of 'weeding out' students so that only the select few could progress to tertiary studies. Individual learning styles and multi-intelligences (Armstrong, 1994; Springer, 2003) were overlooked as assessment method was almost solely written under strict time limits. Now, we accept that individuals do learn in different ways and the teaching and learning aspects of the current education system has fully embraced learning differences although assessment in many schools does not reflect the changing understanding of individuals' learning patterns.

Shephard's (2000) continuum of assessment practices was used with staff to examine the major assessment ideologies. Shephard describes such a continuum as an ideological divide between those who hope to raise standards by more extensive testing and those who hope to improve the quality of learning by using different methods of assessment.

Standardised testingConventional forms of assessmentAssessment as learning

Figure 1: Shephard's continuum

Students have no control over the assessment practices when Standardised testing is applied. Standardised testing is often referred to as Assessment of Learning (Earl, 2003). Teachers are often marginalised because they have little say in the development of standardised testing, and variations in individual learning preferences and effectiveness are disregarded. Examples of such testing include: weekly spelling tests and national benchmark tests.

In the middle of the continuum, Conventional forms of assessment allow for some teacher involvement in decision-making about the content of the assessment activities. Some allow for various forms of student involvement and are largely open to the interpretation of individual teachers, school policies and practices. This form of assessment is referred to as Assessment for Learning (Education Queensland, 2001). Examples of such testing include oral presentations guided by a teacher designed criteria sheet and end product items such as projects or posters.

To the right of the continuum, Assessment as learning comes from the humanistic psychology perspective where individuals are empowered in their personal growth through education, including decisions about content, teaching and learning methods and methods of demonstrating development and achievement. Authentic assessment leads to more control and ownership for learners. It provides opportunities for them to demonstrate what they have learnt and what they know, rather than utilising assessment activities designed to find what they don't know (Burke, 1993; Earl, 2003).

Assessment as learning approaches frequently engage the students in 'real world' tasks and evaluate them according to criteria which are important for actual performance in the field (Darling-Hammond & Falk, 1997). Examples include writing portfolios, cooperative group projects, exhibitions, personal communications, and experiments. At the core of such tasks is the students' ability to apply knowledge to solve real problems (Groundwater-Smith et al, 2001; 2003).

The Assessment as learning approach embraces practical manifestations of democratic schooling through discussion, choice and consequences of action (Fogarty, 1995). It prepares all students for more active roles in determining their own futures by affording them increased empowerment and responsibility for their own learning and decision-making.

Assessment as learning furthers the concept of empowerment in learning by focusing on the process and means of assessment of the student. The student is at the centre with the use of self-assessment as the main means of student and teacher discussions of work-in-progress and future directions to achieve the best possible outcome. Students are guided towards the ability to assess their own work against examples of excellence in the context of their past work achievements and their current desires for success. The student is the focus of the assessment procedure, not the teacher.

Multiage grouping in a school

The educational benefits of multiage/mixed-age groupings have been discussed by reformers from Montessori and Pestolozzi to Dewey (Lodish, 1993). Since the 1930s, as educators have become increasingly aware of the limitations of a rigid graded system, they have introduced more flexible organisational system which recognises and plans for a wide range of pupil abilities, provides for differential rates of progress, and adjusts to individual emotional and social needs.

Multiage grouping offers the opportunity for best practice when the children and the teacher are together for a number of years supporting, growing, discovering and working together (Magee, 1995). The class members form a family with everyone being the teacher at different times during the teaching and learning process. It has been proven that teaching newly found knowledge to another (Blythe, 1998) results in the highest retention level and in a multiage classroom, the ages mix and support each academically (Walker, 1997) as well as socially leading to broader and deeper understandings and higher intellectual quality. The multiage approach demands of the teacher to act as guide, facilitator, discoverer, and investigator. She or he is not the holder of all knowledge (Shephard, 2000). The children along with the teacher share the teaching and the learning roles.

Assessment for multiage settings

There are a number of assessment techniques appropriate for mixed-aged groupings. According to Lester (1991), assessment described as reflecting the multiage philosophy include self- and peer-assessment and negotiated assessment.

Self-assessment is of particular relevance in the multiage setting as it is child-centred (Ball, 2000). Daily opportunities are provided by the teacher for children to reflect upon their own work (Millar, 1993). Through this continued practice, these reflective skills improve and the ability to discuss work-in-progress and completed pieces allow children to learn from the assessment tasks. Younger, less experienced children observe and listen to self-assessment discussions between older more experienced peers and the teacher. This type of peer modelling, common in the multiage setting, allows self-assessment 'thinking' to develop and grow at quite a young age (Lodish, 1995).

In a multiage classroom, peer assessment also plays a strong and positive role. The more able and experienced children in a multiage setting guide and facilitate the learning of the others (Mitchell, 1991). Peer-assessment requires scaffolding, but with students who have been with the teacher for over a year, their example soon filters through to all new comers and the students become the teachers (DelForge et al, 1993). The teacher soon finds his or her traditional role as the holder of assessment ratings has been removed and the new role of providing examples of excellence, marking guides and facilitating student discussion groups begin to dominate (Anderson, 1993). Listening and asking probing questions to make the students' thinking visible become the new roles (Held et al, 1993).

Negotiated assessment is the last of the three assessment techniques to be included in this paper. Individual students or a group of mixed aged students decide upon an approach to solve a task set by the teacher. Through negotiation, the students and the teacher formulate an appropriate and agreed task for assessment (Jeroski & Brownlie, 1993). Timelines and desired outcomes are finalised and all parties design the assessment process and product.

Developing student-centred resources

Those who work in the school sector are faced with the challenge of ensuring the availability of assessment learning tasks which can engage learners in critical reflection and action to respond to becoming independent critical thinkers. More often than not, the tendency has been for teachers to produce end of unit assessment pieces that only emphasise content recall and comprehension. These materials are developed without consideration of the Assessment as learning, nor the active involvement of the end users, the students. This reflects a top-down approach in which students are merely looked upon as absorbers of knowledge expected to become involved in the learning designed by the teachers.

In contrast, my professional development forums helped teachers to develop assessment materials to engage their students in the learning and assessment processes. This shift from the top-down approach towards a student-centred one took place in all four multiage schools I worked in. Central to this shift was the formation of partnerships between the teachers and me. These partnerships created an enabling environment in which teachers were empowered to change and improve on their own practice as 'transformative intellectuals' of assessment resource and materials development in order to overcome constraints to assessment in their schools.

The next section describes the actual review and development of assessment materials in one of the four schools.

Case study: Developing assessment at Regional School

Regional School is a non-government school managed by a religious order. It is situated in the western region of south-east Queensland and has some 450 students, from Pre-school to Year 7, with 20 members of staff. The school is organised around multiage student grouping the classes which allows flexibility and increased choices for each child as they develop over time. All teachers remain with the same grouping for three years except for the single Pre-school class.

Two teachers from this school contacted me to discuss assessment procedures and materials currently in use. What began as a discussion over coffee changed when the teachers sought my assistance in guiding their whole school review of assessment materials with the aim of developing appropriate assessment tasks and standards which would engage students and promote motivation and improved learning outcomes. I did this by involving all the teachers of the school in a critically reflective inquiry process to explore their understanding of assessment as an instrument for learning.

An internal informal inquiry into the status of assessment at the school revealed an emphasis on both teacher-centred assessment tasks and single curriculum discipline-centred approaches to teaching and learning. Also, the teachers claimed that the pre-service training they had received in assessment development was inadequate for their current teaching context. The development of student-centred and inter-discipline approach aimed to raising the professional knowledge of teachers and student learning outcomes. The development followed a participatory action research model that involved a series of self-reflective cycles of planning, writing and reflecting.

Drawing on teachers' theory and practice, and also the assessment capital mobilised as discussed earlier in this paper, plans were implemented through a series of focus group meetings in the school. The teachers were engaged in a self-reflective process in examining the relationship between the mobilised assessment capital and the development of assessment resources and materials for improved student engagement and learning outcomes. The development of across-school assessment tasks entailed transforming any aspect of teaching and learning determined by the school staff as being below standard. To do this, whole school review and teacher reflection, facilitated by myself, was the procedure guiding the reform.

Whole school review enabled an audit of current assessment practices. A table was considered by the school staff to be the way to display information.

Table 1: Review of current assessment task types

Assessment types used in classroomsWhich approach does the assessment fit?Purposes of
Weekly maths testAssessment of learningWhat was learnt as demonstrated by a final markExternal standardsTeacher
Weekly spelling testAssessment of learningWhat was learnt as demonstrated by a final markExternal standardsTeacher
Poster for classroom displayAssessment for learningWhat student had learnt was demonstrated by the finished productExternal standards or expectationsTeacher
Project for local show displayAssessment for learningWhat student had learnt was demonstrated by the finished productExternal standards or expectationsTeacher
PowerPoint presentationAssessment for learningWhat student had learnt was demonstrated by the finished productExternal standards or expectationsTeacher
Learning circle with peers (Fish bowl variation)Assessment as learningStudent demonstrated what has been learnt to date and asks for guidance in areas of difficultyPersonal goals and external standardsStudent

The teachers acknowledged, that their major assessment pieces (projects, weekly spelling and numbers tests, end of term tests, finished writing genre) fitted the classification 'Assessment of learning' and 'Assessment for learning'. Information gathered was used to inform planning but they commented upon reflection they were unsure of the children's learning and more importantly, the students' understanding.

The review confirmed their suspicions that their assessment practices required altering to fit the child-centred multiage approach. Some comments made during the reflective review included the following.

I was amazed that we [students and teacher] spent all day working together but then I used assessment techniques [spelling test] that isolated the children from their learning (Teacher 1).

I had not ever thought about my assessment processes much before. I just used tests and projects. Ones I have always used (Teacher 4).

Further, the teachers discussed and confirmed the importance of developing a whole school approach to assessment. Three focus guidelines were selected. These are discussed below.

Looking beyond the classroom

School-based assessment tasks - such as a design for a new entrance to their school; solving the 'drop-off pick-up' issues before and after school; designing a stall at the school fete or a sporting event - offer students opportunities to learn through assessment based beyond the classroom setting. This type of task also offers teachers new ways to view their practice. The multiage format provides benefit for children as they can work in small groups of different abilities and the resultant learning is often well beyond the expected standards for each age level (Education Queensland, 2001).

This guideline encouraged integrated units of work which produced knowledge across many curriculum areas and reflected real life more accurately. Thus the traditional curriculum divisions broke down and assessment tasks reflected the cross-disciplinary nature of learning and curriculum configuration.

Involving teacher, student and community

A wider than usual range of participants become part of the Assessment as learning process. As students worked and interacted with the teacher and with people outside the school, the latter were asked to comment on the performances of the students with whom they had contact. Down to earth, easy-to-understand guidelines need to be applied to the students' performances so that all stakeholders could understand the desired outcomes and standard of performance expected.

Encouraging student performance of their learning

It is the nature of the performance task that it focuses on the student's ability to use knowledge to perform a task that is similar to what is encountered in real life. This approach leads to more practical and realistic methods than the traditional assessment devices. The literature offers a plethora of practical devices for the teachers to consider: teacher and peer observations, videotaping, teacher and peer interviewing and conferencing, checklists, rating scales, displays, portfolios, station activities, demonstrations and exhibitions.

Many of the teachers had not tried these assessment approaches, but when peer support was available, they were willing to experiment with a number of new assessment procedures for their students. The important issue highlighted was the fact that one assessment task could be used for all ability levels within a multiage group. Only the level of expectation varied.


The audit of practice confirmed the teachers' feelings that assessment required changing, while the use of Shephard's (2000) continuum gave them the means to view their assessment under three headings - 'Assessment of learning', 'Assessment for learning' and 'Assessment as learning'. Assessment of and for learning had been the major types of assessment used by the teachers. Three guidelines to assist with assessment resources and materials reform were developed. These guidelines offered the teachers a framework to critically reflect upon their practice.

By involving teachers in collaborative research to investigate their own practices, the potential role of experts in enabling teachers to become 'transformative intellectuals' (Huckle, 1996) has been highlighted. The participatory action research model that was applied proved to be a powerful form of professional development, because it grew out of the teachers' own specific context. Professional development was not done on the teachers. Rather, teachers were allowed to be in control of the process of developing assessment resources and materials by their collective planning, writing and reflection. The role teachers can play as researchers, reflective practitioners, and assessment materials developers through genuine partnerships become evident.


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Author: Dr Nita Lester is President of the Queensland Multiage Association; Director, Myall Park Botanic Garden as well as lecturing at Griffith University. Email: N.Lester@griffith.edu.au

Please cite as: Lester, N. C. (2005). Assessment in multiage primary classrooms. Issues In Educational Research, 15(2), 145-155. http://www.iier.org.au/iier15/lester.html

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