Principal's Blog - Slaying the assessment giant

Principal's Blog - Slaying the assessment giant
Blog Principal's Blog


Covid has brought our current assessment into sharp caravaggesque relief. High stakes terminal assessment plays to a particular learner type and results in learners, parents and even schools allowing themselves to be accidentally coerced into learning to play a game rather than develop and secure skills. That is not to say skills are not developed in the current system but they are not the focus and are not the piece which secures the greatest recognition or reward.

Taking GCSEs as a starting point, there has been much speculation around the anachronism at the core of qualifications at 16 in a world where compulsory education now continues to 18 years of age. The rabbit hole of the GCSE debate is to keep asking what the problem is with our current system; are we trying to put a plaster on an open wound or do we need to ask what caused the damage in the first place? In this context, we need to identify the root cause - what education is really trying to achieve. In that, I suspect most of us would agree that we want adaptable learners who enjoy discovery and develop a range of skills to support a breadth of options for their future. We are not seeking to create worker bees with neat little pollen sack CVs nor academics whose aim is to know more than everyone else. Rather than identifying the problems, we need to analyse the outcome of the system we have and set that against what we are aiming to achieve.

Examinations which assess a high level of recall in specific subjects are inevitably going to result in teachers whose aim becomes perverted to threading the needle and ‘getting’ their pupils the best grades they can. It becomes a game of working out the system and how best to exploit it; it is not new to recognise that high stakes exams favour particular types of learner but we must also then recognise both that such examination skills can be taught and that some highly capable pupils will never be able to demonstrate their capacity for thinking because they are hindered by a challenge in memory. The outcome here is that the people deemed most successful as a result of such a process possess specific knowledge in quite narrow fields; they have learned to understand and exploit a specific system but cannot operate more widely. GCSEs create learners who memorise the piano piece but cannot sight read - they cannot really play the instrument and have no scope for improvising, developing or improving what they have learned because they have not been taught to.

If we are seeking a way to encourage pupils to enjoy learning for its own sake, we have to divorce their learning from final assessment. 

In order to do this, one option would be to assess things which could be learned across a range of subjects. In this way we would remove the idea that assessment was fixed at the same time as giving such outcomes appropriate value.

If we take, as examples, that the skills which might ultimately be assessed might include data handling, creativity, argument, evaluation of sources, communication recall and collaboration. Each of these skills could be assessed through a number of academic (and even non academic) courses, using an array of evidence against a set of graduated criteria for success. Whilst all of these skills could be assessed in almost any subject, some would be more applicable than others and might require a broader range of evidence. Communication and collaboration could be evidenced widely so might require five data points or evidence examples; data handling would be harder to evidence in some artistic subjects so might only require three data points.

Without needing to break existing siloes, there would be scope, but not mandate, for much more creative setting up of curriculum such that humanities could be combined or taught separately, as with sciences, languages or the creative subjects. Schools would be able to evaluate their context and select the right approach to knowledge based on their pupils’ interests and needs (and indeed regularly re-evaluate and experiment, so modelling adaptability and preserving a sense of continual development). Parents and pupils would be able to choose the type of curriculum and school which best fitted their learning styles. 

Of course the government would not want to cede control over content so easily. There is no reason that skills assessment couldn’t run alongside the agreed content aims of the national curriculum; it is just that the retention of content (or the skill of recall) would only be one form of assessment. This particular skill does seem unfairly weighted in the current system where it is a requirement (or stumbling block) for all pupils in almost all subject assessments.

The outcome of such a system would be to encourage learning for its own sake for the majority of a course, with assessment only entering in the final phase, alongside the development and recognition of skills in a much broader context. 

Selecting the skills to ensure retention of a globally recognised and world leading currency of qualification is, of course, where the real debate might begin...

Chris Wheeler


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