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I have been working with teachers for more than 20 years, and I would say that all this time the idea of ‘closing the gap’ has been a common reflection when teachers’ goals and the challenges in education are analysed.  There is, however, some compelling research evidence that may challenge the way in which this ‘closing the gap’ purpose is being approached within the classroom.

I am part of the research team of the Assessment and Learning Partnerships Project (ALP) since July 2010. The ALP project is designed and executed by the Assessment Research Centre of the University of Melbourne, in collaboration with the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development of Victoria and the Catholic Education Office (Melbourne). The project is funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC) with the purpose of examining teachers’ collaborative use of assessment data to inform differentiated teaching decisions in a developmental learning framework (Griffin, 2007, 2009; Griffin & Care, 2009; Griffin, Murray, Care, Thomas, & Perri, 2010). As part of this research project, sustained improvement in student learning has been observed (Griffin, Care, Francis, Hutchinson, & Pavlovic, 2012) largely exceeding the benchmark of 0.4 for effect size per year proposed by Hattie (2009). The analysis of the progress’ pattern for students at different ability level reveals, however, that the improvement is not homogeneous for all the groups (Griffin et al., 2012). In fact, the major improvement is observed for the group of students at the lower ability level. In contrast, the higher ability students remain stable and in same cases even decrease in their achievement. These findings have informed the public debate in Australia, where The Age ('Results flatline for top students', Jewel Topsfield, 10 January 2013) published an article talking about these worrying results (if you want to have a look to this article, it is available on http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/results-flatline-for-to...)  The following image from that article is quite illustrative to describe the results we are obtaining:

The blue lines show the progress from testing period 1 to testing period 2 for years 3, 4, 5 and 6. As it can be observed, in the four years the bottom quartile has a clear learning improvement during the six months period. In contrast, the top quartile remains somewhat stable for years 3, 4 and 5, and even tend to decrease in year 6. Additional investigation about this trend is being conducted aiming to analyse teacher strategies to promote learning at all the skills levels. The report of this project should be available shortly and as soon as it is uploaded on the ARC website, I will add the link for those of you who may be interested on it.

This evidence challenges our understanding of closing the gap, as it may indicate that what we are really closing is the gap of learning opportunities. Questions as “are we providing students at the top levels with challenging learning experiences?” or “are we concerned about all the ability groups within the classroom, or do we tend to focus only on the ‘struggling’ students?” became extremely significative facing this data.

In the next post, we will try to link this research data with some challenges for teacher profesional learning.

 

Bio

Alejandra Arratia-Martinez is an Educational Psychologist with over 18 years of experience in the educational field in Chile. She has contributed to different evaluation studies including investigations of the impact of different programs aimed at improving teacher learning and students’ achievements. She coordinated the Curriculum Area at the Curriculum and Assessment Unit of the Chilean Ministry of Education and was part of the team in charge of developing the learning standards associated with the national curriculum. Alejandra was the responsible for teacher training in curricular instruments and use of content standards. As part of this function she worked with teachers and principals in the use of assessment data to better understand students’ learning growth and inform teaching.

Alejandra has over 6 years of experience as a University teacher at the Psychology Faculty in "Universidad Catolica de Chile". In this institution, she taught the subject “Design and Evaluation of Psycho-educational Programmes”, a specialisation subject for Educational Psychology students. Currently, she is part of the Research team of the Assessment and Learning Partnership (ALP) Project, at the Assessment Research Centre, University of Melbourne. She works with different government schools in Victoria as facilitator of the ALP Professional Development program, supporting the implementation of evidence-informed instructional practice within a developmental model of learning. She is pursuing her Doctorate of Education, investigating teachers’ metacognition regarding differentiated teaching and professional learning, in the context of ALP.


The articles referenced on this post are:

Griffin, P. (2007). The comfort of competence and the uncertainty of assessment. Studies in Educational Evaluation 33 12. doi: doi:10.1016/j.stueduc.2007.01.007

Griffin, P. (2009). Teachers' Use of Assessment Data: Springer Science+Business Media.

Griffin, P., & Care, E. (2009). Assessment is for teaching. Independence, 34(2), 56-59.

Griffin, P., Care, E., Francis, M., Hutchinson, D., & Pavlovic, M. (2012). The influence of teaching strategies on student achievement in higher order skills. Paper presented at the Research Conference 2012: School Improvement: What does research tell us about effective estrategies?, Sydney Convention and Exhibition Centre. Darling Harbour, NSW.

Griffin, P., Murray, L., Care, E., Thomas, A., & Perri, P. (2010). Developmental assessment: lifting literacy through professional learning teams. [Article]. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 17(4), 383-397. doi: 10.1080/0969594x.2010.516628

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible Learning [electronic resource] : A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-analyses Relating to Achievement: Hoboken : Taylor & Francis, 2008.

 

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Comment by Hazel Owen on June 6, 2013 at 16:43

A fascinating area of research, Alejandra! Although your study focusses on teachers, I wondered if students scaffolded to interpret the diagnostic / formative assessment data (as opposed to the summative), so that they are able to identify their own stage along a progression of increasing competence, and to select the 'appropriate' strategy and/or resource (Griffin, 2007)?

And not really related to the question I just asked, but... :-p It was really interesting to note the findings that "the bottom quartile has a clear learning improvement during the six months period. In contrast, the top quartile remains somewhat stable for years 3, 4 and 5, and even tend to decrease in year 6". It will be great to find out more about teacher strategies to promote learning....

With groups of students I worked with a couple of years back, it took 4 overarching 'project' or inquiry cycles to move from teacher-centred (the mode they were most used to), to a place where they were comfortable choosing the approach, topic/question, tool...and knew how to work with grading rubrics...as well as where and how to seek help (virtually and f-2-f). There was a lot that had to happen at an affective level, as well as a skills and intellectual level, which took time and a series of iterations with quite a lot of reflection built in. Each cycle the 'training wheels' were further removed, and a greater level of sophistication in the skills and thinking applied, was sought.

The good news is that, in the associated research study, the majority of students involved reported that they had increased in confidence, enjoyment, skill-levels and engagement. The assessment achievement data was interesting too - the 'high flyers' soared and there was a significant increase in the number of students achieving an A or above. The number of students who were in the 'comfortable' band remained about the same, but the number of students achieving (and graduating from Freshman year) at the lower end of the spectrum increased (the data was collected with student cohorts (approx 200 in each) over 3 1/2 years). After some head scratching, we figured out that it was because the number of failing students had decreased significantly...those students who may have traditionally 'not achieved' (gosh I hate that terminology), there was a clear learning improvement. I must admit to being elated! And much was to do with cycles and the scaffolding (in part enabled by a blended approach), as well as the social learning and support that occurred between students.

Very much looking forward to reading your next post about some of the challenges for professional learning.

Comment by Alejandra Arratia-Martinez on May 30, 2013 at 0:11

Many thanks Jenny! It is great to know that it makes sense to you. I also think that sustained improvement is a key aspect of teachers learning, especially in our current context, isn't it? This is one of the reasons I think the way in which teachers think about themselves as learners is so important, as then we can sustain the improvement. In the next post we will be talking a bit more about it, hopefully it is interesting for you!

Comment by Jenny Sinclair on May 28, 2013 at 20:23

Thanks Alejandra, I look forward to reading more when you post the link. Sustained improvement is what we want as teachers. Walking that fine line between challenge and boredom is an opportunity for differentiation. Very interested in the how and why of this research. 

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