How can assessment meet the needs of the present and prepare students for the future?

Nov 13, 2020 | News

Assessment in schools tends to focus solely on measuring an individual’s ability to recall information, and whilst it is important to recognise the importance of assessment for ‘certification’ purposes, by relying on data which comes from ‘one off endpoint’ examination, we are not only taking a limited ‘snapshot’ of what has been achieved through the hard work of teachers and students, but also restricting the potential of students during their time in education and when they enter into the society which education is meant to prepare them for.

The question needs to be asked, ‘Who is assessment for?’ – is it the institution or the individual, or both; and if it is both, to which side do we lean most heavily?

It is hard to argue against the point that the purposes of assessment should be extended to include the preparation of students for life after ‘Formal Education’.  Assessment should encompass the abilities required to undertake activities that necessarily accompany learning throughout life in formal and informal settings.  Assessment needs to meet both the specific and immediate goals of a course as well as establishing a basis for students to undertake their own assessment activities in the future; essentially being accepted as an indispensable aspect of lifelong learning.

To achieve this, assessment has to move from the exclusive domain of assessors into the hands of learners, and a focus on the blunt instrument of knowledge testing needs to be replaced by a new vision of continuous assessment based on competencies and behaviours conducted ‘at the point of learning’.

If assessment tasks within courses, at any level, act to undermine lifelong learning, then they cannot be regarded as contributing to the student.   Essentially, for assessment to be valid and valuable, it requires to meet the needs of the present, whilst also preparing students to meet their own future learning needs.

For students to become effective lifelong learners, effectively participate within society and have ownership of their development, they need also to be prepared to undertake assessment of the tasks they will face throughout their lives.  It is true to point out that at time, they will need to be able to demonstrate whether thy have met certain standards, they will also need to be skilled at seeking forms of feedback from their environment (from peers, other practitioners, from written and other sources) to enable them to undertake subsequent learning more effectively.

Education has a responsibility to equip students to do this in a wide range of settings and in a variety of circumstances, therefore breaking the dependency on teachers or other formal sources of advice; and as a result, enabling them to work with others and deploy available expertise in a reciprocal fashion.

Being able to effectively assess our own learning is not a state we achieve at a particular point in time, but one which we need to be continually developing throughout our lives as new and anticipated challenges present themselves.  In the same way, if we offer Students this opportunity – by placing more emphasis on the individual rather than the institution – they will be able to contribute to their own learning and that of others.

The premise that education should equip students for effective participation in society should not be contested, and with a view towards today’s society, learners will continue to be learners throughout their lives more than ever before: in work, in families and in communities. Old structures are fragmenting, the certainties for middle and skilled employment are rapidly disappearing, ‘careers’ are shortening, employment is becoming increasingly contingent, and globalisation is unleashing unfamiliar forces upon us.  To operate within this, work is becoming learning and learning is becoming work, and for those leaving formal education, this means that they need to be able to anticipate and respond to the unanticipated.

The only things we can be sure about are change and connectedness with others in complex society. Those who are skilled and flexible learners will flourish in these conditions; others will languish. Each will have obligations towards others. As educators it is our responsibility to equip all learners as best we can, for formal and informal learning. This requires us to go beyond immediate course-related goals and view learning and assessment in wider terms. We will need to prepare students not just for what the course itself sets as its outcomes, but to operate in a society whose form we can but glimpse. We need to engage with the question of what constitutes sustainable assessment and how it can be promoted.

One of the ways we can begin to do this is to examine that aspect of assessment that is directly linked with learning, that is, area of formative assessment. There has been a renewed interest in this in recent years and research on formative assessment provides important pointers for sustainable assessment practice.

The only things we can be sure about are change and connectedness with others in a complex interconnected society. Those who are skilled and flexible learners will flourish in these conditions; others may languish.  As educators it is our responsibility to equip all learners as best we can, for formal and informal learning. This requires us to go beyond immediate course-related goals and view learning and assessment in wider terms. We will need to prepare students not just for what the course itself sets as its outcomes, but to operate in a society whose form we can but glimpse. We need to engage with the question of what constitutes effective and meaningful assessment and how it can be promoted.

One of the ways we can begin to do this is to examine the aspect of assessment that is directly linked with learning, that is, ‘Assessment at the Point of Learning’. There has been a renewed interest in this in recent years and research on this provides important pointers on what this means for Education.

Assessment has two main purposes: certification (summative assessment) and aiding learning (formative assessment). These are inextricably woven together and, given the resource constraints of most educational institutions, it is probably impossible to separate them in practice. Both purposes of assessment need to be judged in terms of their effects on learning and learners, as there is no point in having a reliable summative assessment system if it inhibits the very learning which it seeks to certify.

Assessment should have two main purposes: certification (summative assessment) and aiding learning (formative assessment).  Both need to be judged in terms of their effects on learning and learners, as there is no point in having a reliable summative assessment system if it inhibits the very learning which it seeks to certify.  However, current assessment practices are perhaps the greatest influence inhibiting moves towards a unification of learning and assessment.  At its core, summative assessment acts as a device to inhibit many features of a learning. It provides a mechanism of control exercised by those who are guardians of knowledge—teachers, educational institutions, and professional bodies —over those who are controlled by assessment—students. It too easily places responsibility for making judgments in the hands of others and undermines learners’ ability.  As educators, we have taken the easy ‘quantitative’ solution, and have become obsessed with certification, grading, and public measures of performance and accountability – ultimately favouring the institution over the individual.

How do we replace this obsession with ‘grade data’ and ‘flight paths’ with one that places assessment in the hands of learners, while acknowledging the legitimate role of certification by others? While it is neither possible nor desirable to remove the summative judgements of others, a significant shift of balance is required to equip students to sustain themselves as lifelong reflective assessors.

In answering this question, we first need to recognise that knowledge, skills, competencies, and behaviours sit in groupings of interdependence – that they are socially situated.  In response, the assessment process must find the means to assess the individual and encourage learning both as a social activity and as a social practice. If we are to evaluate interdependent nature, we must move to an ongoing, socially situated process of assessment, which can occur at any point throughout a person’s life of learning.  Thus, we need to establish a better understanding of what an individual needs to develop themselves, to work in teams and how to live in the technology rich world.

In recognising that traditional approaches to learning and assessment used for acquiring knowledge and skills are inappropriate for developing the behaviours that needed to become ‘lifelong learners’ and ‘lifelong reflective assessors’, one solution has been provided by Imagine Education and tested at scale across multiple education systems, most recently with over 870,000 teachers in a national training program in Egypt (partly funded by the World Bank, and supported by UNESCO and UNICEF).

Recognising the need to move from formal courses that assess one-off, isolated demonstrations of skill and knowledge, a Point of Learning system where competence frameworks are used to observe, develop and measure behaviours in real-time, in different circumstances, within communities of practice was rolled out with high levels of engagement and impact (for both students and teachers).  What made this solution more viable than others was that it maintained a high level of learning, unified the Learning and Assessment process, whilst also capturing development at the point at which it occurs.