Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Educational Assessment (2015 Term 2 Week 4)

I don't think I can imagine a more off-putting title for an article than the one I have chosen for this week. Simply looking at it makes me yawn! Attempting to lead the parents of the Inaburra community to read and think about this topic may be an example of crazy-brave futility - especially since this week the triennial parent-satisfaction survey is live! Surely this is the week to roll out some serious click-bait, rather than trying something substantial.

However, given that the annual NAPLAN processes are underway this week, and that the Year 12 half-yearly reports have just come out, and that most students in the Senior School are completing assessment tasks that will feature in their half-yearly reports, the topic may be one it is worth pausing to consider briefly. Assessment and the reporting of assessment can be the cause of angst in loungerooms, classrooms and staffrooms across the country! Much of what follows arises from a recent research paper by Geoff Masters.

At its heart, the fundamental purpose of assessment is to establish where learners are in their learning at the time of assessment. That is to say, what they know, understand and can do. All the other nuances of assessment grow out of this purpose. Having said that, just as the wider field of education is going through a time of profound and radical change, so too is educational assessment.


Educational assessment is under pressure to reform from at least four different directions.

First, there is demand for better data to inform decision making, whether by politicians, principals or classroom practitioners. The traditional model of assessment assumes that teachers teach, students learn and assessments judge how successful the students are. While there is still a place for this model, the use of data in parallel professions such as medicine and psychology has led educators to value assessment not in order to judge but to understand. Once a situation is understood, interventions and actions can be designed, progress measured and effectiveness evaluated.

Second, our understanding of the science of learning has helped us to recognise the shortcomings of the traditional model. We now know more about brain plasticity, effective teaching practices, the role of attitudes and self-belief and the individual pace and progress of learning. All these advances lead us to question the merits of assessment that is predicated on fixed-ability students, progressing in lock-step through age-based curriculum. Assessments that provide feedback, make progress visible to the learner and that require learners to connect learning to new contexts have far more use in facilitating learning.

Third, pressure to reform assessment comes from the increasing focus on the formation of broader life-skills and attributes through education. The so-called 21st century skills around ways of thinking, ways of working, tools for working and skills for living in the world are rightly becoming a priority in school education. How are these to be assessed? If they are not assessed, then the weight of school and parental attention will continue to fall on the traditional subjects. Traditional assessment methods, designed to judge student success with reference to defined bodies of curriculum content, do not adequately judge the development of character traits and capacities that emerge over time.

Fourth, the transformational potential of new technology may potentially revolutionise our thinking about assessment. Adaptive testing, whereby software selects and designs assessments based on students' demonstrated levels of performance, promises to personalise the assessment process, by ensuring that all students are able to demonstrate precisely the areas of their mastery. Likewise, the ability to mine big data from student assessments will enable swifter and more precise diagnoses of areas for further learning.

If you made it this far through the blog, congratulations! At this point, I am not proposing a rationale for a new initiative, announcing a revolution or the abolition of an existing practice, or throwing up my hands and walking away. Rather, by outlining some of the complexities that are unfolding in schools, I hope to help parents appreciate some of the challenges and opportunities that we are exploring. In the meantime - and I don't expect any significant shift to this basic frame - remember that the fundamental purpose of educational assessment is to establish where learners are in their learning at the time of assessment. No more, and no less.

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