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Planning for Culturally Responsive Assessment: Inside the Black Box

by Rebecca Thomas





Are we serious about raising standards?


Unquestionably we assume learning is like a ladder, and schools should be accountable and blamed if children do not attain test scores that fit this pattern. If children are not making as much progress as their peers, especially in Literacy and Maths, there is an assumption that it is the teacher's responsibility to force the child to the next rung. This pressure to prove and improve performance is then felt by the tamariki, whānau, kaiako and tumuaki all at the expense of learning.


At a time when measurable performance and high stakes testing becomes the pursuit of new assessment practices, we are in danger of losing sight of quality teaching and the importance of the learning environment where assessment is understood as a lifelong process of self-improvement. After all, the ultimate user of the assessment information who applies it to truly improve learning is actually the student.


Having reread Black and Wiliam's, Inside the Black Box paper recently there are a few wise words that I reflected on regarding my concerns for the potential for disparities to grow in this climate between our learners as we approach a more standardised journey this year.


“Pupils who encounter difficulties and poor results are led to believe that they lack ability, and this belief leads them to attribute their difficulties to a defect in themselves about which they cannot do a great deal.” - Black and Wiliam

Whilst it would be easy for a school to initially panic about the amount of data they collect in the face of the upcoming rigour and assessment procedures that may sweep the country in the year ahead, it would be foolish to focus on just adding tests and assessment check ins to existing programs to collect data without also scrutinising the clarity of teaching and critical pedagogies teachers use in order to obtain the outputs required. But this parallel is only one part of whole picture.


The Black Box


The analogy to think of assessment in terms of a 'black box' similar to that on a aircraft is a useful one. Black and Wiliam state when faced with competitive markets to raise standards in education that we must be encouraged to reflect on the fact that attempts to raise standards alone by reform of the inputs and outputs to and from the black box of the classroom can be helpful, but reiterate that they alone cannot be adequate on their own.


The black box analogy emphasises that teaching and learning involves complex cognitive processes within the student that educators don't have complete visibility into, or control over.


Careful examination of relationships between educational inputs and outputs can provide insights, but we need to be cautious about making assumptions about unseen inner ‘mechanisms’ affecting student success. This parallels Kaupapa Māori prioritising the whole child, their relational worlds and holistic wellbeing, not just their academic production.


Just as the flight recorder on a plane captures vital flight performance data for analysis after the flight, just as student assessments and grades retain data about teaching and learning to study efficacy, the inner workings inside the box, inside what is happening for the child within the classroom, are hidden from view. This aligns with Kaupapa Māori recognising that each child has rich inner worlds, identities, and ways of thinking that need to be embraced and understood.


Unsurprisingly then the importance of discursive pedagogies (exchanging of information orally) becomes a vital part of understanding what is happening inside the black box for the student. It is only when we allow time for this that we can be more certain about the impact of the inputs on the output, and truly hear what is unfolding for the student in the learning process. Greater visibility comes through dialogue and relationship. Quality interpersonal engagement reveals otherwise hidden inner workings. For Kaupapa Māori, the power of discursive pedagogies echoes the centrality of whanaungatanga in learning - connecting, listening and sharing stories.


So as we pencil in all of the key checkpoints in the year ahead to carry out our assessments in Hero/eTap etc, have we also penciled into our timetables spaces to interact and allow the student to discuss their learning with their peers, time for whanaungatanga in learning? Be mindful not to just allow time for dialogue with only the teacher, as the power imbalance here can lack flexibility and confidence for the student.


There is enough documented research out there that shows us and confirms that standards will only be raised by changing what teachers and students do in the classroom, not the amount of tests they churn out. Development of formative assessment that is culturally responsive for all of our learners will need to be an essential part of our classrooms in order to reach these desired goals of learning gains.


There is no doubt assessment and accountability are going to be the buzz words for 2024 in every school once the doors in Wellington open up. Whilst there may be an urgent need to raise standards across our schools in order to ensure our students get the quality education they rightly deserve, in our race to prove we have pulled our ‘standard socks up’ be mindful about potentially alienating students by not paying attention to the whole story. To reach and affirm every student we must pursue the understanding of all that dwells in their black boxes.


As schools balance more standardised assessments with cultural responsiveness, we must remember that meaningful change starts inside the classroom. Effective teaching and learning cannot be mandated from the outside in.


The free activities we have created below (perfect for any pre Waitangi Day tecaher only days) are designed to shine light inside your classrooms and schools. They utilise the black box metaphor to represent your diverse students, prompting reflection on "what is happening inside our students' black boxes?" and shaping supportive classroom cultures accordingly with equity and care.

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Assessment Inside The Black Box (4)
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Our first of many gifts for our educators as we embrace a successful year ahead.


Ngā mihi


Steve and Becca


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