What forms of assessment are most appropriate for different types of learning?

10/12/2013Nansi Ellis, Assistant General Secretary (Policy), Association of Teachers and Lecturers

I was always quite good at exams. I know that to get good marks on this question I should identify some different types of learning, perhaps vocational and academic, practical and theoretical, skills-based, play based, knowledge based, and include some forms of assessment – observation, course work, project work, written exam, viva – with some good explanations of why they work for each type of learning.

But there are dangers in trying to map particular forms of assessment to particular types of learning and assuming we’ve solved a problem. There are many forms of assessment we could be using that we don’t, and our blinkered approach is damaging pupils’ learning. By increasing teachers’ skills in designing and using assessment, and pupils’, employers’ and politicians’ understanding of the importance of assessment, we could expand the range of assessments without compromising their rigour.

There are many forms of assessment, but lack of shared clarity over the purpose of assessment often means an assessment is used for too many purposes, which then distorts the assessment itself.

The prime purpose of assessment must be to support learning. Teachers assess their pupils all the time and are best placed to choose the form of assessment to suit the learning, if they have the skills to do so, and haven’t been browbeaten into using ‘optional tests’ and practice papers.

Formative assessment supports current learning – informing the learner, teacher, other teachers, parents. Summative assessment, and the resulting qualifications, supports learners to move on, informing employers, universities, colleges. Assessment helps teachers improve their teaching by understanding what pupils have learnt. And it helps governments to understand the impact of their policies on pupils’ learning. Each demand different measures, and different levels of reliability and validity.

Different methods can be used to assess what a learner knows, what they can do, whether they can apply their knowledge and skills in new situations. Employers often complain that employees have good exam grades but cannot write in work situations, or work as part of a team, or be creative. Our current system doesn’t prioritise the assessment of these things.

Increasingly all learning is geared towards end of course exams – GCSEs and A-levels, which causes problems because  we attempt to use the results to determine the future of students, teachers, schools and, potentially, the government.  In the process we’ve forgotten to decide what our priorities are for the education system and the education of young people, and to choose the appropriate assessments

Professor Mick Waters (formerly Director of Curriculum at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority), in Thinking Allowed on Schooling, talks of holding ‘time trials’ instead of exams: “the student enters the room, is given a problem with three hours to solve it.. Then like most people in business and industry, they would contact others, hold small meetings, get on the web… gradually provide solutions, test out their solutions with colleagues and eventually work towards the best answer possible”.

People learn in myriad ways and we corral people into separate pathways at our peril. By 2025, I hope we can balance a need for consistent data with the flexibility to allow students to learn in ways that work for them.

We need to move away from the assumption that the only way to assess with rigour is to test all pupils on the same day and in the same way. I challenge the assessment community to develop assessment methods that can give consistent results while enabling pupils to choose different ways of being assessed. They need to work with teachers to improve their assessment skills so they can help young people to use the appropriate assessments. And they need to provide the government with persuasive evidence these forms of assessment can provide rigour without compromising student learning.

What is the role of assessment in education?

03/12/2013Dale Bassett, Head of Public Policy, AQA

The education debate often comes down to one big question: what is the purpose of education? I’m not sure I can express the consensus view on that; indeed, I’m not sure there is a consensus view. But I suspect that there is agreement on what is not the purpose of education.

The purpose of education is not to repeatedly drill young people to pass exams. It is not to spend a significant amount of time, which could be spent learning valuable knowledge and skills, memorising the finer details of GCSE mark schemes. It is not testing for the sake of testing, or taking qualification after qualification for the sole benefit of school performance tables. The purpose of education, in other words, is not assessment.

Assessment is blamed for many of the ills suffered by the education system and the young people going through it. But assessment itself isn’t the problem – it’s the uses that it’s put to that have had such a damaging impact. The purpose of assessment has become corrupted; it has become the end rather than the means. School accountability is vitally important but it has come at the expense of education, and it has certainly helped to destroy much of the educational benefit of assessment.

This hasn’t happened by design. Most school leaders and teachers believe that assessment is a key part of learning, that school accountability is important and that the profession should be held to a high standard. But even the most ardent supporters of testing and accountability want it to benefit young people’s education, not harm it. As a system, we need to take back assessment so that it actually does good in education. Assessment needs to once again serve the purpose it was meant to.

Assessment should support, not hinder, good teaching and learning. It should help teachers – and students themselves – keep track of progress. It should identify strengths to build on and weaknesses to address. It should provide a formative basis for improvement. It should recognise achievement. It should facilitate progression by providing a passport that demonstrates what young people can actually do.

We need to get a number of things right for this to happen. Part of this is about the assessment itself. Part of it is about the framework into which the assessment fits.

Assessment can and must get better. It is essential that exams assess the skills and knowledge that we actually want students to learn, and as an industry we need to get better at this. Confidence is crucial, and exam boards need to improve consistency of marking and the transparency of the whole exam process, from question paper setting through to grading. Teachers’ assessment skills are improving but not every classroom yet benefits from consistent, high-quality formative assessment.

Perhaps the most important element will be how the educational framework evolves. We need to improve the school accountability system but we should also acknowledge that any system will be imperfect and there will always be some potential distorting effects. That’s why it’s vital that everyone in the system plays their part too.

Politicians should continue to hold schools accountable for their performance, and they should be uncompromising on this: for all the negative impact of the school accountability system, it has undoubtedly helped to drive a huge reduction in the number of seriously underperforming schools over the past 15 or 20 years. But it is important that the demands of accountability don’t lose sight of the system in which they operate. Politicians should challenge conventional wisdom about what is achievable, but they shouldn’t demand the impossible. Half of schools will always be below average; what matters is that the average keeps getting higher.

Exam boards must avoid falling into the trap of assessing only what’s easy to measure. We need to be sure that we are designing high-quality assessments that help to support good teaching and learning, rather than asking students to jump through hoops. And when qualifications change, as they inevitably will from time to time, we need to work with teachers to make sure they understand what they are expected to deliver and how they can seize the opportunities and freedoms that reforms can bring.

Teachers are the last piece of the puzzle. It’s oh so easy for those of us who aren’t in school every day to say teachers shouldn’t succumb to the pressures of the accountability system. We need to improve it but – again – it will never be perfect. So teachers must continue to defend what they know to be right. They should resist multiple exam entry or excessive resits where these aren’t in students’ interest. And above all, they should have confidence that teaching well will always be the best route to getting the best grades – a combination that is in the interests of teachers themselves, the Government and, most importantly, young people.

This is an edited version of a blog from ASCL’s Great Education Debate.