The negotiated assessmentI have always been fascinated by the methods and principles of assessment and how it applies to classroom practice. I want to know whether students in my class are improving, whether my instruction is helping (or not helping) students to improve and what I can learn from my colleagues in the next classroom. Being part of various teaching teams across a number of schools I have been struck by an interesting phenomenon that seems to occur reasonably often and, despite seeming innocuous, can actually be

This phenomenon is the negotiation of the items or focus of an assessment after a sequence of teaching and typically goes a little something like this:

We, as a teaching team, might start with a curriculum that we agree to, but often is light on the details of what students are supposed to know and be able to do as a result of our teaching. It might comprise something like “Teaching operations with fractions” with some chapters and exercises from the text as a sample. This is our intended curriculum – the domain of knowledge and skills that we are trying to teach students. Then we head to our classrooms and teach what we understand the curriculum to be – the enacted curriculum. The overlap of the classroom domains in the classroom might look like this:

It then comes to test time. Someone writes a test, based on their understanding of the curriculum and it gets passed around the group but, because of the lack of overlap in the enacted curriculum in each classroom, the test needs work. We feed in our comments:

“I didn’t teach addition of fractions involving different denominators. Can we get rid of that question?”

“My kids wouldn’t be able to work out the fractional amount of a whole from a worded question.”

“I spent a fair bit of time on ordering mixed numbers – let’s add a question about that.”

With that sort of a conversation what we are doing is negotiating the domain of knowledge and skills the students need to demonstrate on the assessment based on the overlap of the enacted curricula in our classrooms. We are effectively renegotiating the assessment domain so that it looks like this:

This may be a good thing for assessing the ability of our students to demonstrate the skills and knowledge that were commonly taught across the classrooms, but it is a terrible device for assessing the ability of the students in the intended, full domain of the curriculum. It looks like we are consistent in our classrooms (because the scores on the test say so) but they are just an artifice of the negotiation. We have only tested a fraction of what was actually taught in each classroom and it is not a good representation of the domain that we initially agreed to.

In my mind a curriculum should work along these lines:

• As a group of teachers (teaching, say, maths) make some decisions about what the aims and outcomes of our work will be over a specified amount of time. These decisions are informed by national curricula, school curricula and the expertise in the team. In the best cases we are quite specific about what we would expect students to know and be able to do at the end of the sequence of learning.

• Once we have agreed on the goals and outcomes then teach to the goals and outcomes of the curriculum. Although this may look a little different in each classroom the general focus and intent of the learning is defined according to the curriculum we have agreed to before we started teaching. We are clearer about what we are trying to achieve.

• An assessment is constructed which assesses the domain of the intended curriculum.

If we were to represent the domains of the intended curriculum and the enacted curriculum in each classroom in the case above it might be like this:

I believe there are two ways in which we can approach the negotiated domain problem. The first is to describe our intended curriculum in more detail. The looser the curriculum the more difficult it is for teachers to be consistent with what they are teaching and so the enacted curriculum will be more disparate.

Another way is to change the assessment process. The assessment could be developed before the unit is taught using the intended curriculum as the basis for the assessed domain.

You could also have someone who is not teaching in that team write the assessment. It is quite an interesting test of your intended to curriculum to have someone else, knowledgeable in the subject matter, to write the assessment without input from the teachers in the team. If the intended curriculum is loose it will mean that the assessment that is produced by the external person is less likely to represent the taught curriculum. However, with a decent curriculum it can be a revealing process.