The elephant in the room

Assessment: the process of considering all the information about a situation or a person and making a judgement:

Mention that word to any teacher or student, and it creates a whole host of opinions, thoughts and ideologies. Even more so after the past two years of exam disruption. It’s no wonder that it is a hot topic right now. However I can’t help but think that the current educational climate is the perfect storm to unpick some thoughts on assessment. What is the purpose of assessment? How do we measure success?And are we brave enough to consider assessment in a way which moves beyond it’s ‘aye been this way.’

I remember the sense of innovation which BTC5 brought when describing assessment.

‘Curriculum for Excellence focuses on a broader range of knowledge and understanding, skills, attributes and capabilities that children and young people develop in a range of contexts. This means that assessment in Curriculum for Excellence will involve a broad range of approaches that allow children and young people to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do. Assessment will support learning and promote learner engagement resulting in greater breadth and depth in learning, including a greater focus on the secure development of knowledge, understanding and skills.‘ Building the Curriculum 5

Assessment which measures not just what children can write in a test. But what they can demonstrate, say, make and do throughout their learning progress. And the empowerment of teachers to use their professional judgement to inform next steps in learning on an ongoing basis, through conversation and observation as well as physical evidence. Good teachers were already doing this, but it made it clear that assessment should be continuous and formative to support learning of individual pupils. Does this translate into the current exam practices we in see in high schools across the country?

Consider what you believe the purpose of assessment to be. Maybe for different people it has different purposes. Measuring progress?Achieving high scores? Is it to force pupils to learn something? A right of passage? Or maybe, it’s to find out what pupils can and can’t do.

I would suggest that in my subject, Art and Design, assessment provides information on where a pupil is at. What they can do and what they still need to master. It’s very rarely high stakes, but instead a continual, formative overview of the progress an individual is making practically. I hope the culture in our department encourages continued hard work and effort throughout the year, not just at exam time. Yes there’s often a bit of a push as deadline approaches but I feel confident that overall, the work completed is truly reflective of the candidates’ ability. I’m not naive enough to believe other subjects do not face limitations to working in this way. But I am very fortunate that my subject lends itself very well to the continued assessment of coursework.

What about the argument that some pupils need the pressure of a high stakes assessment? Some believe these particular students will only revise or put the work in when there is something at stake. Or even that pupils need to appreciate the experience of the exam hall to prepare them for their future. I’d argue that this then is about the culture we create. If we have consistently high expectations, from the very first piece of work students complete and insist on high standards – not just ‘done,’ but of ‘excellence’ then we are more likely to create the conditions for continual hard work. Especially if teachers skilfully break down the difficult task into steps to ensure students can achieve and experience the feeling of accomplishment. I’ve found that once students experience that taste of success, it fuels the culture for excellence and they are more likely to push consistently, not just when there is an ‘assessment.’ I would also argue that it encourages ‘cramming’ rather than a mindset of continued hard work and deep learning.

And what about assessment of vocational courses? If we are to value what we assess, we must assess what we value. Practical skills, team work, decision making, time management, organisation. Assessment is so much more than an exam which measures performance at one given point. Progress not perfection.

Another consideration is whether currently learning drives assessment (in my opinion it should!) or instead, whether assessment drives learning. Are we teaching to the test? Or are we teaching for deep learning? Are we assessing when pupils are ready? Or are we blanket assessing a snapshot of performance at a given point? Who would admit to preparing students specifically for what will enable them to pass the assessment? And if so, who does this really aid? Who does it help? Our current situation does nothing to mitigate against this. And the added pressure which teachers face due to timescales and deadlines does nothing to help. A focus on high stakes assessment undoubtedly leads to pressure to cover course content in an almost whirlwind like fashion or we see as Mary Myatt refers to as ‘the curse of content coverage.’

Another question to consider might be, if we were to adopt a different culture around assessment, what would we teach? How would we teach? This brings up considerations around curriculum, threshold concepts and schema. Planning how we build on knowledge and make naturally occurring links because they help support learning, rather than because they will feature in an end of year test. Using assessment to help students understand their progress and how to move forward, and rather than a score or a grade which perhaps explains very little.

And if we did approach assessment in a way which did not favour high stakes assessment, I wonder how this might affect teacher wellbeing and job satisfaction. As a keen advocate of retrieval practice, I see a lot of value in regular, low stakes, high impact approaches. As do pupils, because they experience instant success which drives their motivation. They identify where there are gaps in their learning and focus on these to ensure deep learning. Retrieval focuses on best bets in teaching and importantly, aids teacher workload by ensuring tasks are not time consuming to produce but yield deep thinking for learners. I tend to think that retrieval practice is similar to what Dylan William suggests about feedback ‘it should be more work for the learner than the teacher.’ I may need to explore this in another post. But I do wonder how this might affect secondary education. How would secondary teachers teach their subject without the pressure of being expected to achieve excellent exam results? Would this enable more great teaching to happen everyday rather than a race to get through a course? More questions than answers but I think it’s interesting to consider.

To be clear, I’m not for a second suggesting that we lower our standards of what young people can achieve. ‘No exams’ does not equate to ‘no learning’ or assessment. It does not mean an easy ride. In fact, the very opposite. Assessment absolutely needs to be robust and rigorous. It needs to measure progress of individuals throughout school, not just over an exam period. It must inform learning next steps. Mindsets of learners, parents and staff would have to change. And the culture around learning and progress, would need to considered. Not only this, a joined up approach with further and higher education would ultimately be a key piece in the jigsaw. But I do think now is the time. Because if not now, when?

Wishing all my colleagues a great week, particularly those in secondary schools who are in the midst of assessment. Hopefully this has given you some food for thought.

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