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.

One thought on “What is the role of assessment in education?

  1. Quite frankly, I don’t think we really care about our education system. The learned have passed on taking the time to think for themselves with the test of life being their only exam. The younger generations constantly inherit this dead system.

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