How to Address the Australian Curriculum in Composite Classes?

With our school moving across to the Australian Curriculum next year in terms of formal reporting, the question arose about how to tackle composite classes and the year-level specific content – mainly in the Science and History areas.

There seems to be little in the way of guidelines from the WA Education Department (and a conversation between our Principal and head office didn’t clear up too much apart from some very general, sweeping statements about “making it work”), so it seems it really is up to individual schools to plan effectively. With the old Schedule A policy, schools were required to formally report on each outcome at least once every two years. This meant a rotation of Science topics over a two-year period – 2010 could have been Earth & Beyond and Energy & Change, and 2011 Life & Living and Natural and Processed Materials. The Australian Curriculum requires all four content areas to be reported on each year – effectively one each term instead of one each semester. The first question asked was, “If we have a Year 4/5 class, do we teach all of the Year 4 and all of the Year 5 content?”

A/B Rotation

Suggestion 1 was to work off an A/B rotation – in even years (i.e. 2012, 2014, 2016 etc), all classes work towards the even year-level content (Yr 2, Yr 4, Yr 6), and in odd years the odd year-level content.  On the face of it, this seems a good solution… until you start digging in and providing scenarios.  There is every likelihood that Jimmy, a Year 2 student in a Year 2/3 class, will learn the Year 3 curriculum on 2013, having learned the Year 1 outcomes on 2012.  In 2014, as Jimmy enters Year 3, and is placed in a Year 3/4 class, he now focusses on the Year 4 content… missing the Year 2 content all together.  End of the world? Maybe not, but certainly not the clean solution that some suggest. Another scenario sees young Alice enter a straight Year 1 class in 2014 and learn the Year 2 content.  In a straight Year 2 class in 2015, she learns to Year 1 content she missed the previous year. Come 2016, Alice is placed into a Year 2/3 class as a Year 3… and learns the Year 2 content she covered in Year 1! All of this A/B concept works perfectly if students remain in the same classes, streamed through primary school.  However, the reality is that composite classes are usually formed out of numerical necessity, and throwing another constraint into class structuring would be a logistical nightmare for administration.

History Key Ideas

Having had discussions at a school level, and reading documentation from other states’ education departments (such as South Australia’s), we decided to take the approach in History of creating composite-class guidelines by focussing on the key ideas of the Historical Knowledge and Understandings. Linking key ideas from (for example) Year 4 and Year 5 allows for a guideline for a Year 4/5 teacher to follow.  History outcomes are still broad enough to allow teachers to choose their own topics and directions to take in delivering content, and the document we have produced will hopefully help us to see the connections that are to be made between year level outcomes. This should ensure that the key concepts are still covered, regardless of whether students are in a straight class or a composite class.  All other skills strands and aspects of the History learning area can still be used as a way of differentiating expectations between different students, and links therefore do not need to be made.

Download a PDF of our draft planning document

Our History document is still in draft form at the moment, and composite statements are yet to be fully discussed and ratified by our staff for 2013, but I feel it is a good start for teachers of our composite classes to begin planning around how to best deliver and cater for both year levels. We’re still discussing Science as a staff – the outcome statements appear to be a little more independent of each other as compared to History, and require more thought.

feature image source: dakardus @ deviantART

Linking Assessment with Reporting to Parents

A recent staff meeting discussion got me thinking about how teachers link their assessment to their formal reports.

With a mind to reporting time, staff were questioning the current Department of Education guidelines regarding the allocation of A to E grades. There were quite a range of opinions floated:
[quote]…an A is given to students who are working two years above current year level.

…an A is given to students who are working one year above current year level.

…an A is given to students who are achieving well above their current year level[/quote] It really hit home a couple of points for me: firstly, teachers really should be all on the same page with reporting, and have a clear understanding of what each of the A to E grades looks like; secondly, thanks to the numerous exemplars and descriptors about what a “C Grade descriptor” looks like, there is little in the way of what a B or an A looks like (discounting isolated exemplars, which while extremely useful for quantifying grades, only give you very small snapshots of the curricula).

Outcomes for Assessment (2006)

One of my first Assessment Profiles – based on the levelled Outcomes and Standards Framework from 2006

Academic Profile (2009)

Outcomes for Assessment Map 2009

For me, it’s really important that there is a seamless transition from my assessment to my records and then on to my grade allocation.  I want to be able to sit down already knowing where my students sit, and have the evidence to back it up without having to explain complex marking systems or the like to parents who enquire.  Being a primary teacher, I use a criteria-based assessment to judge my students.  I have tried adapting criteria-based assessment to numerical methods in the past (mainly to force my square-peg method into the round-hole solutions of Edmodo or spreadsheet record-keeping), but always end up drifting back to what works best for me – a document for each student which lists the outcomes, and allows me to record when and how often they demonstrate their understanding of these outcomes.

Getting back to the staff meeting conversation… I began to reflect on my understanding of grade allocation.  Three years ago, when I was team-teaching with a colleague in a Year 6/7 class, I redeveloped my assessment techniques to produce an “Outcomes for Assessment” document so we were both on the same page with assessment.  It followed the reporting guidelines at the time – students working AT their year level were a “C”, students working in aspects of the year above were a “B”, students demonstrating success in all (or most) of the year above were an “A”.  My document outlined the outcomes necessary for each student both above and beyond their year level (eg a Year 7 student would have Year 6, 7 and 8 outcomes listed), so I could record achievement of At, Above and if necessary, below so I could demonstrate where a student was sitting and what they needed to do to move forward.

It worked, and I was happy.  Come reporting time, my document showed very clearly which students were at a Year 7 level, and which students were above and below.  And I hadn’t really changed in in three years except to re-create it to reflect the Australian Curriculum outcomes for English, Maths, Science and History.  I even adapted one for the draft Geography outcomes just to see how it fit.

So, heading to the DOE Curriculum Support page, I was a little shocked to see that I sat in the “wrong” corner of my grade allocation thinking.  I felt a little cheated… why hadn’t anyone told me!!! More to to point, why hadn’t I kept abreast with things and checked more regularly to see if what I was doing was correct? My bad.  This document was updated in May 2012, so I actually missed the boat for last semester’s reports…

Department of Education Grade Descriptors

A  – Excellent
The student demonstrates achievement that has greatly exceeded the expected standard. Their achievement is well beyond what is expected at this year level.

B – Good
The student demonstrates achievement that exceeds the expected standard.

C – Satisfactory
The student demonstrates achievement at the expected standard. The student is able to progress to the next level of learning.

D – Limited
The student demonstrates achievement below the expected standard. The student demonstrates a quality of learning that is adequate for progression but will still need additional support or assistance to progress.

E – Very Low
The student demonstrates achievement below the minimum acceptable for this year level.

And more to the point, this extract from the Frequently Asked Questions section:

Assessment Overview (2011)

Electronic Outcomes for Assessment Overview, based on Australian Curriculum – 2011

[quote]In order to gain an understanding of what constitutes an A or B in a year level, should I refer to the C Grade Descriptors and A-E Exemplars in the year above the one I teach?
No. The award of a final grade in each learning area is dependent on content knowledge and an understanding of the concepts, and competence in processes and skills relevant to that particular year level. For example, a student does not need to be achieving at a year 7 level to be awarded a grade of A in year 6. A grade A (excellent) in year 6 should be determined by the work done in that particular year only. The awarding of an A or B does not necessarily indicate that a student is working at the year level above, rather it indicates that they are exceeding the standard set for the year level they are in.[/quote]
Outcomes for Assessment (2011)

Electronic Outcomes for Assessment input sheet, 2011

These are very different interpretations, and require different thinking about assessment and reporting.  My first thoughts were that it doesn’t change my classroom teaching methodology at all – I’m still scaffolding my students like I always do – but what I’m measuring and the feedback I’m providing to my students and parents is going to need to change.

I began researching.  I found very, very little on-line conversations from West Australian teachers about their interpretations.  Victorian teachers from my understanding were making the same transition. My big question still remained however: What measures can I use to indicate my student is exceeding the standard set for the year level?

The Department only puts out C Grade Descriptors. Am I again to be left to my own judgement to decide what constitutes an A or a B?  I think my answer has come from (somewhat remarkably), a parent forum at, by the user HOWDO (09/06/12 12:12pm):

In all cases a grade is given against the year level they are working at. As are given for higher knowledge and understanding and application to the learning in new contexts.

For example completing a sheet of multiplication algorithms is not a new context. It is showing that the students can repeat the same operation in the same way and perform multiplication. Using multiplication to solve a problem involving a new situation/s and scenarios enables the child to show higher order thinking skills and *that* is actually what is expected at grade level. The more you show you understand this grade level expectation and in more complex ways the more likely you are to move to As and Bs.

The General Capabilities are what students are required to demonstrate understanding and a high level of competence in to receive an A grade. So in mathematics, to get an A, students will be able to compare, contrast, evaluate and so on and demonstrate that understanding in new contexts. It will still be at year level however in that if the requirement at year level is to work up to 10 (Foundation) then the child doesn’t get an A simple because they can count to 100. Getting a A involves being able to work with the numerals 0-9 and count correctly, subitise, connect them to the names in words and use the numbers in increasingly complex ways and in new situations. For example if a child can count to ten and point to each numeral and word as you ask them they are working at D level. There is no new application there. If they can talk about, explain and apply their number knowledge to a new situation, for example count the number of spots on a ladybug out in the garden, then they are beginning to work at C level. When they start to talk about how many is in one group and how that differs to how many is in another group and find number in the world, subitise in real life situations then they are beginning to work above C level. They are still working with the same set of numbers and skills but applying them in increasingly different ways and in new situations.

This appears to me to link closely to what the WA Department documents are stating, and give me some direction for not only how to incorporate the General Capabilities of the Australian Curriculum into my planning and assessment.  It is time to change rewrite my “Outcomes for Assessment” document to reflect this thinking, and this could well be the direction to take.

In Year 6, students MUST BE ABLE TO:  achieve this aspect
In Year 6, students MIGHT BE ABLE TO: apply it to these contexts
If students apply this aspect to some of the contexts, they are exceeding the expected standard.  If they can apply it to all or most of the contexts, their achievement is well beyond what is expected at that year level. A diagnostic plotting map like this would allow me to identify where my students need improvement, and target students’ next progression.
Questions that arise from this reflection:
  1. Am I on the right track?  Will this allow me to correctly assess and report on my students according to the West Australian Department of Education guidelines?
  2. The General Capabilities are organised into bi-yearly statements – does this affect how I should view Year 5 or 7 achievements?
  3. Is this a valid use of the General Capabilities?
  4. Is there a concern that this style of assessment “caps” the learning of students?  Will teachers stop teaching gifted students content from above their year level because they look to find more and more contexts for the students to demonstrate achievement in?

feature image source: wikimedia