A qual for all seasons.

Today some random thoughts on the issues of assessment, formative ideas but ripe for debate and discussion by us, the profession, not politicians and civil servants.

I realised this week that I am now in my 20th year of teaching. I felt proud of what I have achieved….briefly. Then I realised that, thanks to the determination of successive Governments to drive me to my grave before I can claim my pension, I still have another 25 years to look forward to!

Throughout my career I have been involved in ongoing assessment to support qualification outcomes. From the moderated, practical coursework assessments in CDT at the start of my career to a huge range of assessment methods throughout my ICT teaching experience. I have assessed GNVQ, AVCE, Applied GCSE, ECDL, CLAIT, BTECs and OCR Nationals as well as supporting students preparing for professional quals such as CCNA and A+. I’ll say, straight away, that I haven’t always agreed with the assessment criteria for these quals, sometimes on the basis of challenge and sometimes on the basis of relevance. However, whatever the criteria were, I always strived to ensure that I was rigorous in my assessment. Never award a criteria without the evidence to support it and always ensure that students expect to produce more than the minimum expectation for an AO, have been my rules. Students have no problem with this – although getting them to produce the evidence is not always easy! They do understand, though, that failure to evidence means no award. Allowing a grade without clear evidence devalues the whole qualification just as surely as changing the grades fairly achieved. So I have contributed in no small part to the qualifications of hundreds of youngsters and I have shown my commitment to quality through training and becoming a member of the noble, increasingly relevant enterprise of the CIEA.

“So,” you might say (I certainly would have by now in your position!) “you’ve done your job like tens of thousands of other teachers – what is your point?” We have, I believe, one of the most expensive and unreliable public qualification systems in the world. Many comparable jurisdictions rely mainly on teacher based assessment, although they may employ standardised tests as a measure of ability level or suitability for higher level paths of study – American SATs being an example. Why should we not be able to do that here? The real reason is Trust.

Over the past 30+ years, an enormous amount of political and media energy has gone into undermining the profession and the education system. The reason is simple – you can only dismantle a huge public institution like Education if you first discredit it. I’m sure the Goves of the world genuinely believe that our schools are ravaged by hooligans and plagued by the festering boils of endemic militancy – but I’ve never experienced that in my 20 years – only occasional spikes of anger and frustration leading to short term action (quickly followed by serious guilt, self-loathing and further reduced militancy). Despite this, when asked who they trust, the public will often rate teachers very highly. Why should we not be trusted to undertake a greater share of the assessment of our students?

Of course, there will always be the fear that we will fix the figures or deliberately award students qualifications without them having completed the work, in order to meet performance targets. There is evidence for this in inflated key stage assessments, in my opinion. It only happens, though, because of the ridiculous accountability system which is designed for political ends rather than educational ones. I would argue that local systems of moderation with national random sampling would keep people honest. Teachers are excellent at ensuring things are fair, after all. I am not even suggesting that such assessment would only be in coursework form. Teachers could use tests, exams, projects and other forms of assessment provided they were moderated locally / nationally and clear evidence of attainment was kept.

The potential savings in exam costs and the benefits to teachers of developing as assessors would be substantial. Schools could award a statement of attainment at 14 or 16 reflecting what had been achieved – purely as an aid to progression. No expensive certificates. Local schools could form assessment hubs where appeals could be heard and evidence reviewed. Provided every region is working to universal specs with clearly defined and agreed standards, you can still maintain consistency across the country – they can do it in professional qualifications systems and numerous other developed countries, so could we!

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One Response to A qual for all seasons.

  1. In contrast to the Level I questions, student responses elicited from Level II tasks usually involve either short essay responses or a range of appropriate strategies and representations for the same task. Teachers need to interpret more than whether or not the answer is correct and, in many cases, the answer is often secondary to the student’s justification for his or her answer. This places greater demands on teacher interpretation of student work as it opens up a larger window of student reasoning that is more nuanced and complex. Depending on the type of task used, students’ responses may reveal: 1) their belief in a common misconception (e.g. that taking a 25% discount twice means the sale item should be half price), 2) understanding of a fundamental concept even though they cannot perform a related algorithm (e.g. demonstrating a sound understanding of division but confused about how to use the long division algorithm), 3) an ability to communicate their mathematical reasoning, and 4) that they can “see” the mathematical principles in an unfamiliar problem context. These responses generate new possibilities for feedback, for the student about his or her performance in relationship to the instructional goals, and for the teacher with respect to what students are learning from instruction. In a sense, when Level II and III tasks are added to the assessment plan, there is an increase in the quality of evidence that can be used to inform instruction and guide learning. With respect to formative assessment, Level II and III tasks also are more apt to extend the cycle length for formative assessment ( Wiliam, 2007, p. 1064 ), allowing teachers to monitor students’ progress of process skills that cut across units and provide feedback that students will have an opportunity to take in to account in future revisions of arguments and justifications and the next version of an extended written response or project.

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