The measure of success

Posted: August 22, 2013 in Assessment
Tags: , , , , , , ,

This week’s post serves as an introduction to a tricky but important topic: assessment. As with every other aspect of education I have written about on Clean Slate, once I started writing down my thoughts it turned into about five different posts. So I would like to start by asking some basic questions and trying to dig down to the most honest answers, in order to lay the foundation for a more detailed discussion in the coming weeks.

Why do we assess?

Let’s start by taking a good look at why we do it. Why do we test and grade, formatively or summatively, internally or externally? These would seem to me to be the main reasons:

1. We assess for the students’ sake

a. To give them a sense of achievement – or not
b. To help them identify how far they are along the road to mastering a skill/acquiring knowledge
c. To give them official proof of what they have learned to show to potential employers or other schools/colleges

2. We assess for our own sake as educators

Assessing. Recording. Tracking. Proving. Lots of paperwork.

Assessing. Recording. Tracking. Proving. Lots of paperwork.

Besides altruistically wanting to help students get on in life, we also assess for our own benefit. We do it:

a. To prove the students are learning

so we can

b. Prove we are good teachers

so that collectively we can

c. Prove our school is a good school

which will hopefully

d. Attract more parents to enrol their children

and all that will

e. Justify our continued existence to those who fund the school

3. We assess for the government’s sake

Teachers need to prove their worth to the school, and the school needs to prove its worth to providers of funds – mostly the government. But it doesn’t stop there. The government itself feels it has something to prove as well, and will use assessment results to compare the nation to other nations across the world. Is Britain’s population more or less literate than the population of Sweden? What is the highest level of qualification held by the majority of the population? How do our universities stack up against other universities in the world?

Why is this important?

The government pours money into education, not purely because being well-educated makes for happy, fulfilled citizens, but because it wants a return. The government educates to keep the economy going. Society functions as long as we are collectively making money to pay for all the services that we have clubbed together to provide – and these services in turn feed back into the economy. Sick and unemployed people cost the country money. Together we fund the NHS to help keep people healthy and in work (as appropriate) and together we fund schools to equip people with skills that will get them jobs, which will allow them to take part in this whole wonderful cyclical process.

The government gets nervous when people from other nations are better educated and more literate, as this may well mean that their economies will thrive, possibly at the expense of our own.

And so, the government wants numbers, it wants to measure how effective schools are, to keep its finger on the pulse. It wants to have some control over education, since it is investing in it.

Somewhere beneath this is always that other motivating factor for governments, which is staying in power. Like the teacher who hopes to prove her worth with good observation grades, the party currently in government knows that literacy rates and league tables act as report cards to show the country that it is doing a good job and that it is worth re-electing.

Are these valid reasons?

These are the main reasons why we assess students the way we do at this present time. Now we should ask ourselves, are these the ‘right’ motivations?

Perhaps the question to come back to is: why do we educate in the first place?

We educate for the students. Mostly, these are the youngest generation in society, but they can also be adults. We educate because they have discovered that they both want knowledge and because they need knowledge. They want knowledge to satisfy their curiosity, because they want to explore and understand and interact with the world as it is now, and as it could be in the future. Education leads to fulfillment. They need knowledge so they can function in society and take their place in the economy. They soon discover, as they learn about the world around them, that society is structured in a way that requires you to specialise, to become good at something, to make this your ‘job’ and earn money with it and that this allows you to make use of other people’s specialisms. Education allows you to function in society.

You see that in asking ‘why do we teach?’ we have once again ended up answering the question ‘why do we learn?’ And that is as it should be.

Our current motivations for assessment certainly feature both sides of the educational coin, then. But they are greatly biased towards the economic side of the matter. At student-level, we take into consideration their need for a sense of achievement and fulfilment, but heavily piled on top of that are the teacher-level, the school-level and the government-level. Each of these is pre-occupied with assessment as a means of self-preservation, of assuring economic well-being. Not that of the student, but that of ourselves. The teacher wants to keep her job – the school wants to stay open – the government wants to keep the economy afloat – and of course stay in power.

This balance needs to be redressed, because at the moment, assessment is killing teaching and it is killing learning. The thought of success rates strikes fear in the hearts of teachers and leads to all manner of creative accounting, teaching-to-the-test, an obsession with paperwork, half a term devoted to mock exams and setting the bar so low that students cannot possibly ever fail.

Focus on the Learner

We all know that education is about the learners. Every initiative, every policy, every training course I have ever been on, this has been the message. But somehow in practice this gets lost in a sea of paperwork. We are working so hard to prove that learning is taking place that there is no real opportunity for learning to actually take place.

So, what should be the reason we assess students, if at all?

Surely the purpose of assessment should be to check if education is successful in achieving its aims. In other words, assessment should show us whether:

a. The learners are achieving a measure of fulfilment: are they finding out about the things they are interested in? Are their lives enriched?

b. The learners are able to take their place in society: are they finding a specialism that suits their abilities and interests? Are they acquiring all the knowledge, skills and contacts needed to make this their profession?

Where to from here?

Science in the sandpit. How do we know if learning has taken place?

Science in the sandpit. How do we know if learning has taken place?

This is just the start, of course. I am sure the people and organisations who dreamed up our current system of exams, course work, target setting and benchmarks started at this very same point. In order to fix assessment, we will need to address the following issues in the coming weeks:

1. How can we eliminate ‘fear’ as a factor in assessment?

2. How can we keep assessment learner-focused and take everyone else’s interests out of the equation?

3. How can assessment be a true reflection of what students have learned?

4. If learning is tailored to the individual, and shaped around individual interests and needs, how can or should the affect standardised testing?

5. Should we be using assessment to compare learners, teachers, schools and countries? Or is that counter-productive?

6. How do you measure fulfilment? Does it need to be quantified at all?

This is just the tip of the iceberg.

I would like to invite anyone reading this with an interest in education, whether as a teacher, an innovator, a parent or a student, to join in the first Clean Slate twitter discussion on the topic of assessment on Monday 26 August at 8.30pm GMT. Please use #cleanslate to take part. Let me know your thoughts!

I would also, as always, be grateful of your considered comments below. What has your experience been of assessment in schools? How do you think things need to change (if at all) to make assessment fairer, more representative and more accurate? Should we assess at all?

Thank you for reading!

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Comments
  1. Our current assessment focus is damaging. You have to teach to the test, there is no time for deep learning or following pupil curiosity. In my subject I felt that much of the assessment was not relevant to the industry that my subject linked to. It felt pointless. Often I was saying you will never do this in the profession but you have to write x, y and z to get a mark. My school often made choices based on what looked good on league tables not what was best for pupils. Often I saw excellent, skilled pupils fail because the exam system just did not suit them.

    I will certainly try to be there Monday.

    • judithkingston says:

      Fantastic! And I totally agree, this is my experience as well. There must be a better way of doing this. Or perhaps we will have to come to the conclusion that it is actually unnecessary. Looking forward to hearing everyone’s views!

  2. […] This week's post serves as an introduction to a tricky but important topic: assessment. As with every other aspect of education I have written about on Clean Slate, once I started writing down my t…  […]

  3. blueberetmum says:

    Mhm….where do I start? I spent all my life being constantly assessed, both through tests and weekly *stand at the blackboard and be interrogated by the teacher & if you don’t know the answer it’s a fail*. A few of my classmates had to leave my secondary school because their grades were not good enough! Shocking when I think about it… I like the idea of exploring and using critical thinking to work on projects that combine different disciplines, for example chemistry, biology and geography or English, history and geography… Will try to be there on Monday x

  4. redpeffer says:

    I believe that the current assessment system is designed to show how good (or not) a school is. It’s main focus is on grading the effectiveness of the education. It has no real meaning for the learner’s at all in my view. Learner’s are being taught to pass exams, they are not being educated. We are seriously in danger of producing successive generations of adults whose knowledge and learning is wholly two dimensional.

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