How should assessment systems develop to meet the needs of the future?

13/01/2014Andreas Schleicher, Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary General, OECD

A generation ago, teachers could expect that what they taught would last for a lifetime of their students. Today, schools need to prepare students for jobs that have not yet been created, to use technologies that have not yet been invented, and to solve problems that we don’t yet know will arise. The dilemma for educators is that the kinds of things that are easy to teach and easy to test are also the kinds of things that are easy to digitize, automate and outsource. In short, the world economy no longer pays people for what they know – Google knows everything – but for what they can do with what they know.

Of course, state-of-the-art knowledge will always remain important. But schooling today needs to be about ways of thinking, involving creativity, critical thinking, problem-solving and decision-making; about ways of working, including communication and collaboration; about tools for working, including the capacity to recognise and exploit the potential of new technologies; and, last but not least, about the capacity to live in a multi-faceted world as active and responsible citizens.

In today’s schools, students typically learn individually and at the end of the school year, we test their individual achievements. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the more we need great collaborators and orchestrators, and people who can appreciate and build on different values, beliefs, cultures. The conventional approach in school is often to break problems down into manageable bits and pieces and then to test whether students can solve problems about these bits and pieces. But in modern economies, we create value by synthesising different fields of knowledge, making connections between ideas that previously seemed unrelated, which requires being familiar with and receptive to knowledge in other fields. Modern schools need to help young individuals to constantly adapt and grow, to find and constantly adjust their right place in an increasingly complex world.

Typically, what is assessed is what gets taught.  Thus, education systems will need to get their goals and standards right and transform their assessment systems to reflect what is important, rather than what can be easily measured. The future is not about more high-stakes testing with one-size-fits-all assessments. It is about developing multi-layered, coherent assessment systems that: extend from classrooms to schools to regional to national to international levels; that support improvement of learning at all levels of the education system and actively involve teachers and other key stakeholders to help students learn better, teachers teach better, and schools work more effectively; that are derived from rigorous, focused and coherent educational standards with an eye on career and college-readiness; that measure individual student growth; that are largely performance-based and make students’ thinking visible and that allow for divergent thinking so that educators can shape better opportunities for student learning. Too often, we still treat learning and assessment as two distinct parts of the instructional process, with the idea that time for assessment takes time away from learning. But responding to assessments can significantly enhance student learning if the assessment tasks are well crafted to incorporate principles of learning. And capitalising on innovative data handling tools and technology connectivity can allow us to combine formative and summative assessment interpretations for a more complete picture of student learning and enhanced teaching.

Developing such assessments is not easy, the keys to success are coherence, comprehensiveness and continuity. Coherence means building on a well-structured conceptual base—an expected learning progression—as the foundation both for large scale and classroom assessments, and on consistency and complementarity across administrative levels of the system and across grades. Comprehensiveness is about using a range of assessment methods to ensure adequate measurement of intended constructs and measures of different grain size to serve different decision-making needs, and about providing productive feedback, at appropriate levels of detail, to fuel accountability and improvement decisions at multiple levels. And continuity is about delivering a continuous stream of evidence to students, teachers and educational administrations.

Sure, there are many methodological challenges involved in developing such new assessments. Can we sufficiently distinguish the role of context from that of the underlying cognitive construct? Do new types of items that are enabled by computers and networks change the constructs that are being measured? Can we drink from the firehose of increasing data streams that arise from new assessment modes? Can we utilise new technologies and new ways of thinking of assessments to gain more information from the classroom without overwhelming the classroom with more assessments? What is the right mix of crowd wisdom and traditional validity information? And most importantly, how can we create assessments that are activators of students’ own learning?

But if we invest just a small fraction of the resources that are currently devoted to mass testing with limited information gains, we will be able to address these challenges quickly.

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