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.

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