Junior cycle reform has introduced sweeping changes into lower-second-level education. One of the more significant is the new classroom-based assessment (CBA), along with its associated subject learning and assessment review (SLAR) meeting. This article explores assessment at junior cycle level and reveals the reality of CBA in our classrooms.
The Framework for Junior Cycle heralded significant change in the lower-second-level education system in Ireland, the most significant change at this level since the foundation of the State. Its aim is to place the student firmly at the centre of the learning process and envisages a modernised curriculum across all subjects. In doing so the Framework has succeeded in opening up, to our own scrutiny, practically everything we’ve come to know and accept about teaching, assessment, learning, reporting, debate, and reflection.
It has introduced a new discourse at second level which all of us, even today, five years after the new junior cycle was formally introduced into schools, continue to internalise. Principles, key skills, statements of learning, well-being, subject learning and assessment review (SLAR) meetings, descriptors, short courses, Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement (JCPA), other areas of learning, subject specifications, L1LPs, L2LPs, priority learning units, features of quality, and assessment tasks are just some examples of the new language that has become commonplace among Irish educators.
A key tenet is the classroom-based assessment, or CBA: one of the most innovative and creative of the developments at junior cycle level. The shift towards greater focus on developing key skills in the junior cycle requires a shift in how students are taught and how they learn. Assessment practices can guide or inhibit this, hence the CBAs were developed to support the assessment of skills that cannot be easily assessed in a traditional pen-and-paper examination.
As part of our ongoing provision of professional learning experiences (PLEs) – often referred to as continuing professional development or CPD – in Junior Cycle for Teachers (JCT), we support teachers in engaging with, making sense of, and developing a shared understanding of the Framework and the new subject specifications, including their new classroom-based assessments.
CBAs are best described as assessment moments on the student’s learning journey. In general, they take place during normal class time and over a defined period, in many cases spanning three weeks, with schools having the flexibility to decide on those three weeks within a wider timeframe. CBAs are facilitated in the classroom by the subject teacher but devised externally, at a common level, by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) in consultation with the State Examinations Commission (SEC), who also define the national timetable for CBAs.
CBAs support the development of a wide range of key skills. Each CBA can take on a variety of forms across subjects and short courses, including project and oral language tasks, investigations, practical or design-and-make tasks, field studies, and artistic performances.
Students are required to undertake two CBAs in each of their subjects across the three years of junior cycle. In most subjects, the learning journey in each subject involves one CBA in second year (usually after Christmas) and one in third year (usually before Christmas). In Gaeilge, both CBAs take place in third year. In the case of short courses, only one CBA is completed by students.
The introduction of CBAs at junior cycle heralded the start of a dual approach to the way we formally record and report on assessment at this level. The greatest benefits for students’ learning occur when teachers provide timely and effective feedback that helps them to understand how their learning can be improved.
John Hattie’s (2008) much-discussed and debated synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses on achievement highlighted the effectiveness of formative feedback (see Derek West’s article ‘Grab the Guru While You Can’ in the present chapter). In an interview with Shirley Clarke last year, Hattie expanded on the notion of effective formative feedback:
The key question is, does feedback help someone understand what they don’t know, what they do know, and where they go? That’s when and why feedback is so powerful. (Sparks, 2018)
Conversations about formative feedback on JCT PLE days focus on just that – the importance of effective feedback, which fosters deep student learning. This includes inviting teachers to share their current practice around feedback and what works in their context with their students. Much of this discourse is framed by the work of Hattie and Timperley (2007, p. 86):
Effective feedback must answer three major questions asked by a teacher and/or by a student: Where am I going? (What are the goals?), How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?), and Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)
CBAs provide an additional opportunity for students to receive timely, effective, and relevant feedback. This ongoing assessment, now a formal part of classroom practice, is of crucial importance in supporting student learning and promoting student achievement. The importance of balance between these CBAs and the summative SEC exams is explicit in the Framework (DES, 2015, p. 35):
A dual approach to assessment, involving classroom-based assessment across the three years and a final externally assessed, state-certified examination can enable the appropriate balance between preparing students for examinations and also facilitating creative thinking, engaged learning and better outcomes for students.
The NCCA has produced nationally established standards, or reference points, known as descriptors that describe performance in CBAs at four different levels. These are set out in the assessment guidelines document that accompanies each of the new subject specifications. The four descriptors used are (1) Exceptional, (2) Above Expectations, (3) In Line with Expectations, and (4) Yet to meet Expectations.
A question regularly posed about these descriptors is, Whose expectations are we talking about? The expectations implicit in the phraseology chosen are not those of the students, their teachers, or even parents, but a suite of nationally agreed expectations that describe the standard of students’ work at this particular age and stage of learning. They tell us something of value. These descriptors, along with the suite now being used to indicate achievement in final exams, replace the older system of grades (A, B, C, D, E, F and NG) that have been commonplace in schools for many years.
So how does the subject teacher arrive at the descriptor for a student’s CBA? When a student completes a CBA, it is assessed by their teacher. Each descriptor is informed by Features of Quality, a set of descriptive success criteria set out clearly in NCCA-published assessment guidelines for each subject. Teachers use the relevant features of quality to decide the level of achievement in each CBA.
To support teacher judgement, the NCCA works with schools around the country to produce annotated samples of student work at the different descriptor levels. To enhance collaborative practice, and as a further support to the entire CBA assessment, teachers are also given dedicated time (within timetable) to attend a subject learning and assessment review (SLAR) meeting with their subject department colleagues. Here, teachers ‘share and discuss samples of their assessments of student work and build common understanding about the quality of student learning’ (DES, 2015, p. 39) in their school.
Teachers are therefore not working in isolation in their assessment of CBAs. They apply a nationally agreed set of assessment criteria to students’ work, and they do this in an open and transparent fashion, engaging in collaborative professional discussions with colleagues. Once the SLAR meeting has taken place, the descriptor, with relevant feedback, is reported to the student and their parents.
Section 4 of the Joint Statement on Principles and Implementation, signed by the Minister for Education and Skills and the post-primary teacher union leadership in May 2015, focuses on ‘giving prominence and importance to classroom-based assessment’. It is fitting that CBAs would be given such prominence, as they are a key development in the reform of junior cycle. They are already seen in many schools as the catalyst for embedding an authentic culture of effective formative assessment, which research has found ‘promotes the goals of lifelong learning, including higher levels of student achievement, greater equity of student outcomes, and improved learning to learn skills’ (OECD/CERI, 2008, p. 1).
Time will show that the teaching practices developed, or refined, through the implementation of CBAs in classrooms will have a much wider impact than that of junior cycle. While CBAs are an important dimension of the revised junior cycle, for the many reasons outlined above, we cannot allow them to become a hostage to fortune. Already there is anecdotal evidence to suggest that CBAs are being treated as mini final State exams where, for example, students are not allowed to be absent, no matter what the reason, from any of their respective subject classes during the relevant three-week window.
CBAs are not State exams. They are classroom-based assessments, with emphasis on ‘classroom’. They take place in school under normal classroom conditions, as part of students’ ordinary class time. There is no superintendent, no invigilator, no exam paper, and no nationally applied appeals mechanism. Currently, if a student misses a day of school during the period allowed for their junior cycle Visual Art or Metalwork project, what arrangement does the school normally put in place to make up for that lost time? Schools generally find their own way of dealing with such circumstances, and such circumstances will always exist.
We cannot allow CBAs to become high-stakes, highly stressful assessment moments for students.
JCT’s most recent PLE workshop aimed at school leaders supported them in exploring a process to collaboratively develop an assessment calendar to ensure that CBAs are planned for in a manner that supports student and teacher well-being and takes account of the wide range of co-curricular activities offered in our schools.
Collectively, we cannot allow CBAs to become high-stakes, highly stressful assessment moments for students. This would go against the grain of the new emphasis being placed on well-being. The junior cycle ongoing assessment approach ‘should contribute to ensuring that students have a positive sense of themselves as learners and a strong sense of their own self-efficacy and capacity to improve’ (NCCA, 2017, p. 35).
CBAs should be facilitated to become part of the fabric of normal classroom practice, just like the many other formative and lower-stakes assessment moments that already exist in our education system. It is up to schools, school leaders, teachers, and parents to facilitate this and ensure that CBAs are embraced in this spirit.
Yes, the descriptor achieved by a student for their CBA will appear on their Junior Cycle Profile of Achievement. But the JCPA is essentially a school-based record of a student’s achievement across the three years of their junior cycle. While it has a nationally determined format, it draws upon and reports on achievement across all elements of assessment, including ongoing, formative assessment, CBAs, and SEC grades, which includes results from the State-certified exams and assessment tasks.
It is not a State exam certificate. It is a welcome fusion, a step up, even, from the old Junior Cert and traditional school-based methods of reporting. It provides a rich, comprehensive, and much more valuable picture of student achievement at junior cycle. Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of the new JCPA is the ‘Other Areas of Learning’ section, which gives schools the opportunity to recognise and acknowledge student progress and achievement across a wide range of areas of school life not normally associated with the traditional system of certification.
CBAs are transforming assessment and reporting practices in our schools. They show that assessment does not always need to be left to external agencies to inform us on how well or otherwise our students are performing in their learning. They will certainly provide students with welcome opportunities to demonstrate a broader range of understanding and skills. CBAs and the CBA process are new and will take time to become an integral part of teaching, assessment, and learning. But the positive outcomes for students will make the learning journey worthwhile.
Department of Education and Skills (DES) (2015) Framework for Junior Cycle. Dublin: Department of Education and Skills.
Hattie, J. (2008) Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. London: Routledge.
Hattie, J. and Timperley, H. (2007) ‘The power of feedback’, Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81–112.
National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA) (2017) Junior Cycle Wellbeing Guidelines. Dublin: NCCA.
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)/Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) (2008) Assessment for Learning: Formative Assessment. Paris: OECD.
Sparks, S. (2018) ‘Getting Feedback Right: a Q&A With John Hattie’, Education Week, 19 June. www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/06/20/getting-feedback-right-a-qa-with-john.html.
Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland (ASTI), and Department of Education and Skills (DES) (2015) Junior Cycle: Joint Statement on Principles and Implementation. 22 May 2015.
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