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The New Assessment Tool for Complex Learners

A new teaching resource that assists educators to assess and tailor literacy and numeracy lessons for students with disability and complex needs has won a Premier’s Award.

The Assessment for Complex Learners (AfCL) project is an innovative set of tools designed to help teachers assess and understand the skills acquired by students with complex learning needs. This world-first project – co-designed and trialled in New South Wales – allows teachers to understand the full spectrum of a student’s learning, regardless of their disability.

Alex Oo is an education researcher who has designed and run trials in Australia and Southeast Asia. He ran the Assessment for Complex Learners project for five years, from the initial scoping and inception to designing the implementation. Alex explains what a complex learner is:

“Every child, every person, has their own complexities in how they learn and what educational support we need. For this project, we focused on students who need support establishing a strong first language, particularly those with severe intellectual and other related disability.” He goes on to add: “they may not have a strong grasp of symbolic language such as verbal speech and may use informal communicative behaviours like utterances, gestures or for some students with severe physical disability, movement of just their eyes or a single muscle group.”

One of the complexities for educators, has been how to assess the learning of these complex needs students in a way that takes into account the various and interlinked needs of the student, using a common language and systematic approach that is transferable across individuals and schools while still meeting the needs of the Education Department.

“Before the project, teachers had to either develop their own tools or adapt tools that were designed for neurotypical, mainstream students,” says Alex. “Around the world, there is a major lack of both the assessment tools for and research in how to assess the learning of students with high support needs [and] an international gap in the research literature on what learning looks like for students who need support establishing a strong first language.”

“Teachers and schools felt alone and isolated, trying to develop whole assessment tools and progressions of learning without support from the broader education knowledge base and system.” Alex Oo

The tools

“Two tools were developed in schools, by schools, for schools and represent the ingenuity of the educators,” Alex explains. The tools can be used separately or together.

The Passport for Learning is a holistic formative assessment approach for supporting students with moderate to severe intellectual disability and requiring moderate-to-high support. It can be used to assess students by looking at their cognitive, receptive, expressive and social emotional skills across 7 groupings of skills (awareness, anticipation, intentional, imitation and two-step categorising, simple problem solving, simple critical thinking).

The Literacy and Numeracy Precursor Indicators have been designed as precursors to the National Literacy and Numeracy Learning Progressions, and intended to describe early literacy, numeracy and communication skills. As Alex explains: “They extend and transform the National Literacy and Numeracy Learning Progressions such that now every student can have their learning assessed and tracked against a single pathway of learning, making this combination the world’s first fully inclusive progression of learning.”

The tools are multi-pronged as they can be used not only to assess the current status of the children but also to demonstrate what progress has been made and plan for future learning.

“These three aspects are all essential parts of the teaching and learning cycle,” says Alex. “You can’t do one without the other, they are essential to do together. It’s almost impossible to plan for the future without knowing the current status of children. But then it’s difficult to understand the current status without its context, without knowing what progress children have made. And then, finally, it’s hard to understand the progress children have made without knowing what was planned for them before and how those plans were implemented. They are all essential to the cycle of teaching and learning for children.”

The trial

The project initially started in 2018 with the two tools being designed and piloted as paper-based assessments by around a dozen schools. It then expanded to incorporate 70 schools to collect online data for fine-tuning, before gradually increasing to 387 public schools using the tools which had been refined and improved to become digital assessment platforms.

Holroyd School is a K-12 school for specific purpose (SSP) in New South Wales, providing education for 190 students with moderate and severe intellectual disabilities, often accompanied by complex physical and medical needs and challenging behaviours. As the largest SSP in the state, it was a significant participant in the AfCL trial.

Amy Parks is the current Relieving Assistant Principal at Holyrood and holds a Masters of Special Education. Starting in 2020 – amid the complexities of COVID restrictions –  she collaborated with the research team to oversee the trial at Holyroyd.

“At Holroyd, each student is recognised as a unique and multifaceted learner,” says Amy. “The term ‘complex learner’ is a descriptive one, emphasising the diverse challenges these individuals face in their learning. The key acknowledgment is that they all possess the ability to learn, make progress, and achieve success on the same basis as any neurotypical student. The complexity arises from the students’ additional needs that require extensive, dynamic, and individualised adjustments to teaching and learning programs to ensure all students access the curriculum and achieve learning outcomes.”

Prior to the development of the AfCL tools, Amy says that teachers would rely on self-developed tools, and the lack of a consistent assessment tool made long-term tracking challenging. “Teachers’ judgments varied from year to year and across schools which further complicated the effective tracking of student progress. The AfCL assessment tools represent a significant advancement in special education, providing teachers with reliable external assessments tailored for students with complex learning needs.”

AfCL tools become widely available

Alex reports that the tools will be provided on the NSW Department of Education’s online assessment platform, the Assessing Literacy and Numeracy platform, and available to all public schools. Online professional training will also be available to all NSW public schools. Discussions are underway with the Australian Government about how best to share the tools with other states.

“This has been a testament to what we can achieve when we truly collaborate and listen to each other. Amazing educators can have their expertise truly respected and their ideas prototyped and built upon. Together, we really can make a difference to every student, no matter their ability or disability.” Alex Oo

“It is anticipated that the AfCL assessment tools will be a game-changer, supporting teachers to help students with complex learning needs to achieve continuous success in their learning outcomes,” adds Amy. “The AfCL assessment tools not only signify a positive shift in the educational landscape of special education but also have the potential to bring about significant, positive changes in the learning journeys of students with complex learning needs. It’s very exciting!”

When awarding the AfCL Project with the Premier’s Award, Education Secretary Murat Dizdar said: “For the first time, anywhere in the world, teachers can fully understand and track the learning of students with complex needs. Thanks to the Assessment for Complex Learners team, teachers will be able to understand not only what those students can do now, but how to help them progress in their learning. These tools make students and what they can do visible. I congratulate the team for solving that problem, which will make a tangible difference to students’ lives.”


Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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