Success criteria as a way of increasing accessibility in assessment

In this blog post, Associate Professor Jill Willis describes some of the important work being done as part of the Assessment for Learning component of the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage Project.

What if making some small changes could help both students and teachers? We are working with students and teachers to do just that. This post reports on one aspect of that important work: making success criteria clear and helpful. This was a focus for 11 English teachers across the 3 schools in our Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage during February and March 2022. The early findings are promising.

First, students shared some ideas about what helps them learn. Their feedback shows that they appreciate how their teachers help them improve their work, especially when they:

“Help me identify small things I can improve, so that getting better English is more like getting better at sport”.

“Show examples of other people’s writing at different levels so I can see for myself how to improve”.

“Normally the criteria sheet has big fancy words and you can get lost but [when teachers help us by] unscrambling it and making sure you understand it, it makes it simpler for you to add that stuff into your narrative.”

Peers are an especially valued source of support:

“If you missed anything, other people picked it up. Then you can discuss why you thought that way to make it more clear for me by thinking out loud and they can check it. It actually helps your ideas to feel clearer… Sometimes like in your head something makes really great sense and then you word it and like put it out and it’s just, um, complete rubbish.”

These ideas all relate to a suite of practices known as Assessment for Learning (AfL). When the goals of learning – or success criteria – are shared, students can check their progress using self assessment tools, engage in peer help, ask questions and give and receive feedback against those clear goals. Students can learn to take more control over their learning and develop learner agency. Success criteria connect the learning to assessment, they also help students make connections to what they need to do to improve the quality of their work while they are creating the work.

Yet for some students, it is not easy to infer what is expected from advice that is distributed over a number of lessons over a number of weeks. Successful performance in Year 10 is made up of many parts.

For students with language and/or attention difficulties, as well as students that have been absent with ill health or who have experienced other disruptions to learning, it can be hard to be sure they are making all of the connections.

The Accessible AfL component of the Accessible Assessment ARC Linkage project is focusing on ways of using success criteria so students could feel confident about finding the quality expectations, trying them out, and more readily connecting the various parts of classroom learning to the summative task.

What does shared success criteria look like in practice?

Many teachers already make use of success criteria. The focus of this project was about refining existing practices to enhance their accessibility. Hearing the perspectives of students has reinforced the value of these practices.

In Term 1 of 2022, once the floods and initial outbreak of Covid-19 had subsided, students’ ideas were shared with 11 English teachers. The teachers together identified key concepts that students most often struggled with in the past. Then the teachers worked with each other to make these expectations for quality work really clear for students. Here are some of the practices the teachers enacted. They…

  • Shared paragraphs from higher and lower standard examples of student work early in the term.
  • Co-constructed success criteria from examples with students.
  • Unpacked the task and criteria using accessible language.
  • Wrote short success-criteria on the board or OneNote each lesson.
  • Created visual representations of key terms or criteria (e.g. wall chart, OneNote, NearPod, PowerPoint).
  • Referred back to the wall chart to show connections or add ideas over multiple lessons.
  • Used sentence starters or word walls to prompt students towards demonstrating a success criteria.
  • Used a planning scaffold with students to model how to organise ideas.
  • Made the purpose of each activity clear by linking back to the success criteria during the lesson.
  • Co-wrote a model with students, thinking aloud about writing choices.
  • Invited students to generate ideas and examples in pairs or small groups.
  • Set up routines that enable students to volunteer examples and ask clarifying questions.
  • Created summaries or shared notes/photos so students could access the group ideas later.
  • Made time for students to check their own or peer work using the tools like a checklist or scaffold.
  • Provided class level feedback on drafts and opportunities for revision.
  • Helped students set goals and identify next steps.

These ideas were gathered from a wide range of data, like student interviews, Professional Learning Community conversations, teacher reflections and videoed lesson observations. From the interviews with teachers at the end of 8 weeks, we know that they noticed some powerful changes.

Benefits for students and teachers

Students felt more empowered, as returning regularly to visual representations of the success criteria helped students to focus their learning and it showed in their assessment results. A number of the teachers told us that their student drafts were better quality than usual. This meant it took them less time to give draft feedback and less time to mark the assessment tasks. Teachers also were noting that more students were achieving higher grades in their summative tasks than they expected. A triple win!

In less than ideal conditions – with COVID-19 delays, flood interruptions, sickness and reduced time to teach – these students and teachers achieved some terrific outcomes. We are grateful to the schools, the Heads of Department and the teachers and students who shared their thinking with us during a challenging time in schools.

Teachers also told us in their interviews that they have valued having time to engage in professional learning together to learn with their colleagues. They identified benefits like hearing examples from other schools, trying out an idea from a reading or a colleague, and then reflecting on it with the research team.

Our research is showing that accessibility in assessment can be advanced when teachers and students have time to really hone in on what success looks like.

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