Assessing school assessment in Romania

by Andreas Schleicher
Director, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

We published our review of school assessment and evaluation in Romania today, and the report received a lot of attention. We had done our last assessment of education in Romania in 2000, and it was a very different country back then. It was only in 2011 that Romania put in place an inclusive vision for education, a vision of 21st-century learning and 21st-century assessment. Since then, the country has made remarkable progress in backing that vision up with institutional capacity. Perhaps most important, Romania has been one of Europe’s success stories in terms of delivering improved results. Over the past decade, only Portugal has seen faster improvement in our PISA science assessment than Romania.

But it’s important to look forward, since Romania’s schools today will be Romania’s society tomorrow. And today, 40% of Romanian 15-year-olds still lack the foundation skills they need for lifelong learning and productive employment. Many of the schools and educators involved are not yet in sync with the 21st-century vision of Romania’s new curriculum – nor is the assessment system. High-stakes examinations still determine the future of students’ based on a narrow set of academic knowledge at age 14. This is outdated and unfair.

Never underestimate the influence of examinations on what is taught and learnt. So broadening what is assessed will help ensure that the new curriculum reaches the classrooms. And strengthening other forms of assessment can put examinations in balance. Good education is about developing human talent, not about sorting it. In the late 1990s Poland redesigned its school structure so that students follow the same curriculum until age 15. The reform has helped to significantly reduce performance differences between schools and improve performance among the lowest-achieving students. Perhaps most important, taking away the option to pass struggling students down to programmes with lower performance expectations has delivered the message to Polish teachers and schools that they need to better support student learning. Our data show that those who benefited from the extra year of general education in Poland increased their average PISA score in 2006 by the equivalent of almost three years of schooling.

The quality of education can never exceed the quality of teaching. The way in which teachers engage with students in their classrooms and provide feedback on what they can do to improve is more powerful than anything else in helping students to learn. That starts with the development of professional standards for teachers. If you can’t define a good teacher, it’s hard to get one. And if you give them the support and the space, teachers will be incredibly good at framing their professional practice just like other professions do. I was so impressed by how teachers in the Netherlands developed the Dutch system of professional standards for teachers. No government could have come up with a more demanding and practical vision for great teaching.

One of the most important lessons we can learn from great education systems is how they create a teaching profession that owns its professional practice. Every day I meet people who say we cannot give teachers and school leaders greater autonomy because they lack the capacity to fill that autonomy with meaning. There is some truth in that. But the response to perpetuate the industrial work organisation in schools with prescriptive instructional systems will continue to disengage teachers from their craft. Those who heat up pre-cooked hamburgers from McDonald’s rarely become a master chef. By contrast, when teachers feel a sense of ownership over their classrooms, when students feel a sense of ownership over their learning, that is when productive learning takes place.

The answer is to strengthen trust, transparency, professional autonomy and the collaborative culture of the profession all at the same time. And that is exactly what good evaluation and assessments are about. Professional autonomy can be nourished. Last year, I was the head of the committee that awards the British pupil premium. That’s an amount of money that schools receive for each disadvantaged student to better support them. But rather than telling schools what to do with this money, teachers and schools have to come up with their own plan based on government assessment data, justify how it will improve learning outcomes with evidence and research, and account for the results to the public. And they come up with incredibly imaginative answers.

So in our review we highlight how building teacher capacity, and in particular strengthening teachers’ assessment literacy, must be front and centre of any reform to raise learning outcomes. Assessment is always at its best when it facilitates open dialogue, reflection and feedback, where weaknesses can be acknowledged and mistakes recognised as an opportunity for growth and building trust. This will also require investing in more and better initial teacher education, continuing professional development and simple, practical tools that will help teachers understand the new curriculum’s learning expectations and bring them to life in Romania’s schools.

Examples of what key competencies, like critical thinking and creative problem solving, look like in practice can have a transformative impact on pedagogical practice. Guidance on helping students to understand their own learning strategies can help teachers engage students who are at risk of dropping out, and instil in every child the belief that they can succeed. New Zealand has developed a range of online tools that demonstrate key competencies using student work, and that break the competencies down into essential knowledge, skills and attitudes so that teachers know how to support their students through each learning stage.

Teachers also need the right incentives and professional support to become effective in their job. Teachers in Romania are regularly assessed, but too often appraisal is only summative. It will be important to develop appraisals that are more focused on formative practices, such as professional dialogue and feedback, and grounded in classroom observation and evidence of performance. The theoretical written exams Romania’s teachers take often do not capture what matters most for excellent teaching, such as the relationship teachers establish with their students, their attitudes, and their mastery of pedagogical strategies so that they can plan and sequence teaching to reflect their students’ needs. Ireland’s reform increased the prominence of classroom-based and formative assessments. An important part of that success has been Subject Learning and Assessment Review meetings, where teachers share and discuss examples of their students’ work so that they develop a common understanding of the quality of student learning.

The combination of professional autonomy with a collaborative culture is the key to good teaching, and assessment and evaluation are at its heart. I am always struck by the power of “collaborative consumption”, where online markets are created in which people share their cars and even their apartments with total strangers. Collaborative consumption has made people micro-entrepreneurs – and its driving engine is building trust between strangers. The reason this works is because behind these systems are powerful reputational metrics that build trust. We know a lot more about the driver of an Uber car than about the bus driver or the teacher of our children. When I visited Shanghai in 2013, I saw teachers using a digital platform to share lesson plans. That in itself was not very unusual. What made it special was that the more that other teachers downloaded lessons, or criticised or improved lessons, the greater the reputation of the teacher who had shared them. At the end of the school year, the principal would not just ask how well the teacher had taught his or her students, but what contribution they had made to improve the wider education system.

Shanghai’s approach to curated crowd-sourcing of education practice is not just a great example of identifying and sharing best practice among teachers, it is also much more powerful than performance-related pay based on test scores as an approach to appraisal and professional growth and development. In this way, Shanghai created a giant open-source community of teachers and unlocked the creative skills and initiative of its teachers simply by tapping into the desire of people to contribute, collaborate and be recognised for it.

Still, whenever systems drop a great teacher into a poorly functioning school, the school wins every time. That is why we also took a close look at the evaluation of schools in Romania. Here our advice is to shift the focus from compliance and control, to building school leadership for improvement. Again, this should start with a common and robust framework for school evaluation. In Scotland, school evaluation is focused on three simple questions: How good is our leadership and approach to improvement? How good is the quality of care and education we offer? and How good are we at ensuring the best possible outcomes for all our learners? Scotland’s differentiated model of school evaluation identifies those schools with the greatest need for support. Staff from the ministry and the local authority then work together to determine how the school can best be helped to build capacity for improvement.

In sum, strengthening evaluation and assessment so that it sets high standards for all, and supports all students, teachers and schools to achieve those high standards will create not just a good, but an excellent education system.

OECD Review on Evaluation and Assessment in Education: Romania 
Press Release: Strengthening evaluation and assessment in Romania is key to educational reform
OECD Reviews on Evaluation and Assessment Frameworks for Improving School Outcomes

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Photo source: Scoala – Romanian driving school car sign @shutterstock

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