A deliberate decision was made, as far back as 2012, not to include assessment in the curriculum development process in Alberta – according to various Ministers of Education between 2012 and 2021, this would “come later.” Strange. Most curriculum development sees the specification of what is to be taught as inextricably linked to how students will be assessed. The State of Oregon, for example, sees the specification of what knowledge and capabilities should be developed in the curriculum as one side of the coin; the other side is how students’ mastery of knowledge and their ability to demonstrate capability is evaluated.
Through curriculum design work, educators specify a great many learning outcomes, linked to knowledge, understanding and skills/procedures specified for each subject for each year of study. For example, the draft Alberta Grade 5 music curriculum is designed around 3 major outcomes, 104 specific knowledge points, 17 areas of understanding and 51 specific skills and procedures. Some of the knowledge points require understanding of sub-sets, so depending on how we interpret them there may be as many as 200 knowledge points. This is a lot of bits and pieces – as someone might suggest, “too many notes!” Which of these, if any, do we assess?
Not all knowledge points or specific skills and procedures are equally important – for example, the ability to read music may be seen to be much more important than being able to improvise on a tune or evaluate the musical prowess of Mart Kenney.
The challenge of over-specification of content and lack of rigour in assessment is evident in other areas of education. For example, the Canada Red Seal plumbing apprenticeship has a total of 2,987 competencies specified, but few of these are systematically or consistently assessed for every Red Seal candidate in Canada. Simple log books are used to record satisfactory completion, with some of the log books being just two to three pages. The quality of assessment is inconsistent between assessors and it is not possible to secure a third party validation of the assessment. When attempts have been made to require assessment of every competence specified as required, resistance to doing so has been significant. By failing to integrate assessment into initial design thinking, what tends to happen is an over-specification of possibilities leading to poor and inconsistent assessment. That is the case with the draft K-6 Alberta curriculum.
Part of the idea behind the launch of Inspiring Education in 2010was to reduce the number of items students needed to know and master using the mantra “teach less learn more” – an idea Alberta “borrowed” from the then Minister of Education in Singapore, who launched this initiative in 2005. By focusing on cornerstone knowledge, fewer skills and capabilities were specified. The intent was to focus on essential knowledge, skills and capabilities in a way which challenged students to leverage their knowledge and skills in problem-solving and critical thinking. The driving idea was to unleash the power of imagination and capabilities in a way which positioned students well for life-long learning, work and citizenship. Assessment was to be focused not just on knowledge, but on demonstrable capabilities and the ability to leverage knowledge and skills in creative and productive ways. In other words, assessment based on competencies and capabilities in use (see page 41 of Inspiring Education), not just scores on exams or Provincial Achievement Tests.
Indeed, in Inspiring Action on Education (2010 ), Alberta Education suggested that assessment for learning would be a driving feature of curriculum change:
- assessments are based on learning outcomes for competencies defined by the programs of study, and provide assurance that educational outcomes reflect Albertans’ investment in learning.
- the scope of assessment is expanded to include “assessment as learning,” where students learn how to assess their own learning and that of their peers.
- students are more engaged in their learning, and reflect on and assess their own learning and that of their peers. (page 23)
As things stand now, with a draft curriculum largely rejected by both the profession, curriculum specialists, expert groups and the largest school districts in Alberta the focus will be on “what next” for the specification of what students should know. But we should also use this moment to start a conversation not just about what it is that students should be learning in school, but how we will ensure that they have learned and can apply their learning. Assessment is part of curriculum design.
Dr. Murgatroyd teaches strategic foresight and issues associated with innovation and organizational change in education at the University of Alberta, University of Toronto, and Athabasca University.