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Features of best assessment practice - Norway

If we are to draw examples of best practice, we should take as our starting point the central question arising from a new report on education in Norway “Equity in Education, Thematic Review” (OECD 2005). Those drawing up this report voiced a concern that the following up of Norwegian pupils was not good enough. The report claims that if this had been done, the number of pupils who have been characterised as underachievers would have been limited. The report also points out that part of the reason for this may be that intellectual and technical demands on pupils have not been clear enough: “We […] worry that expectations about intellectual development are too low”.

A challenge like this may be faced in many ways, but in our opinion it is vital to raise the level of assessment activity from being a matter of individual understanding and practice for each teacher to becoming a joint concern for the whole school and collegiate. Seen from this perspective, it is vital that management looks on assessment as one of the school’s priority areas. Ways must be found to properly integrate assessment into the daily activities of teaching; developing a common understanding of the demands and expectations of pupil work at every level must become part of the way teachers work together on a daily basis. Most of the formative assessment for teaching support is carried out by teachers during their daily tuition, so it is important to develop a kind of joint interpretation among teachers to ensure that assessment is both valid and reliable.

If we seek evidence that the actual practice of teachers and schools enables the kind of good assessment which promotes learning, then we can point to three key points:

  • active pupil participation
  • clear information to and participation by parents
  • developing a culture for assessment in the school 

Pupil participation

The pupils must find that they are being drawn into the assessment of the learning process at any early stage by means of an open, enquiring approach to what is being learned, a good understanding of the established goals and a clear participation in the development of criteria to assess whether goals have been achieved. The assessment itself must be based on tools and methods that have a strong element of interaction and communication. This might be with the teacher, with other pupils or with parents and might occur in groups or in one-on-one situations.

In Norwegian schools a number of tools have come into use which appear to allow for such a practice. In the article we have pointed out the use of planning books, portfolio assessment, learning logs and allowing the pupil to participate in developing criteria as relevant methods for handling assessment. 

Parent participation

There is an increasing demand from parents to receive better information about their children’s learning benefits. Many of them are not just looking for information in the form of marks or grades, but also to be drawn into active participation in the learning process of pupil and class. In this respect too, many of the tools we named earlier seem to be suitable for enabling this kind of parent participation. 

A culture for assessment in the school

Other research also points to the same OECD report: that Norwegian schools offer a lot of good, exciting activity but give less attention to learning benefit and results. A great challenge is involved – to create a stronger emphasis on learning in schools, enabling activities and teaching adapted to the needs of the individual and based on the clear expectation that all pupils have the potential to learn and develop. It is vital that the school’s management and teaching staff should work together to develop a common understanding of what constitutes good assessment practice in this perspective. This does not mean that everybody has to do exactly the same thing or use the same assessment tools, but assessment must be a topic that is discussed in school in such a way that individual teachers can develop appropriate assessment practices. 

The potential of a good assessment procedure is based on the concept that it can be used to promote learning and development among pupils with differing situations and needs. But this implies that one needs to see expertise in and attitude towards assessment as a part of a school’s collective competence and accountability, not just that of the individual teacher. We believe that the primary challenge facing Norwegian schools lies in understanding the developing of supportive, formative assessment procedures in the inclusive classroom as a common accountability for the school. 

Policy that supports best practice

In the report we have pointed out that all levels and all principals within the educational system have responsibilities imposed on them by a body of legislation which clarifies their joint responsibility for the learning benefits of all pupils. This legislation also covers the rights of pupils with special educational needs. 

The type of policy which gives the best results is characterised by a consistent and unambiguous focus. This makes demands on every link in the process and requires that every link takes its share of responsibility. If we evaluate the last great educational reform in Norway (L97) we see much endorsement of the idea of inclusive education. It is however less clear to what extent this applies solely to the formulation level or whether it also applies to in-school practice (Haug 2004). Much the same applies to special needs education. The principle of special needs education is strongly supported in schools. The empirical results of Imsen (2003, in Haug 2004) show however that the implementation of special needs education in practice corresponds with neither the teachers’ ideals at the formulation stage nor with what they say they are doing in practice. Unfortunately these results apply to all pupils, both those with special needs and others. We should also add that there are significant differences between schools.  

These results give a clear indication of the need for greater responsibility at each stage and among all principals within the school system. This has also been placed on the political agenda in recent years. Legislation holds the municipality or owning body responsible for results within its area of authority. The chain of responsibility extends from municipality or owning body right down to each individual teacher. Through the use of various assessment tools and by documenting results in different ways, the individual teacher is responsible for following up on pupils in quite a different way than before. The way policy has been formulated in recent years has tended to make this responsibility more evident. The development and understanding of the importance of pupil assessment should also been seen against this perspective. 

Our conclusions regarding the political challenges facing Norway in this respect may be summarised as follows:

  • The authorities must ensure relevant in-service training and further education for managers and teachers within the fields of pupil assessment, special needs education and pupil participation.
  • Teacher education must be strengthened with regard to basic education, as well as in-service training and further education in the field of assessment.
  • The responsibility of the individual school and teacher with regard to special needs and inclusive education must be followed up. 

Some essential questions

  • How do we develop learning-promoting assessment practices that are integrated into the learning process? 
  • What promotes and what impedes learning-promoting assessment practices? The challenge must be directed to different players at different levels in the educational system. 
  • What characterises good assessment practices / tools that promote adapted education and inclusion for all pupils? 
  • How do we strengthen the participation of pupils in the assessment process:
    • self-assessment?
    • peer assessment? 
  • How do we strengthen the participation of parents in the assessment process? 
  • What characterises schools with good assessment practices? 
  • How do we create changes in a school’s practice? 
  • How do we create changes policy implementation?
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