Are you ready for a renaissance in assessment?

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I was recently having coffee with my friend, Jodie, a teacher in England. She was telling me a story about an English test she had once given her class. The scores from the test showed that several of her students had clearly not grasped some important concepts. Alas the test had been designed simply to produce a score, rather than to uncover insights. It gave the grades, without the whys. And without those whys, how could she know what to revisit, with whom, and how?

In particular, one of her ‘star’ students, who she had expected to fly through the test, had not.  It turned out that on the morning of the test, he had had a big fight with his brother, and this had clearly affected his performance. Yet the test simply told her that he hadn't understood the topic.

There is a rapidly accelerating debate amongst educators around the world – from developed and developing economies, and from schools, universities and professionals – about the purpose and use of assessments. A new consensus is emerging advocating for the use of new technologies to reduce the quantity and improve the quality of assessments.

Today’s publication of Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment contributes to this debate and advocates for a new set of principles and guidelines in the way assessments are designed, conducted, and applied.

We probably all know what we mean by “assessment”. In the broadest sense possible, it’s any appraisal, judgement, or evaluation of a student’s work or performance. These evaluations can be formal (e.g., standardised testing) or informal (e.g., classroom observations), and determine what students know, how much they understand, what they can do, and what they struggle with.

But for me, and for an increasing majority of the education community, assessment is so much more than a certification of a student’s ability or a mark of their likelihood to succeed in further study or employment. Assessment is - or at least it should be - a way to help teachers teach better; a way to inform them of their students’ needs and make the appropriate interventions.

Yet assessments have historically been used predominantly to hold teachers, schools, and systems to account for the performance (and largely academic performance only) of their students. As such they have tended to ignore the full compliment of a student’s ability: Does he display emotional intelligence? Can she solve a problem? Can they work well as a team?; and subsequently focus on a too narrow definition of ‘value’ for outcomes.

A cappuccino and more conversation later, Jodie recalled a particular student who failed her math and science tests, but always shone when it came to creative writing. Unfortunately, back then, creative writing wasn’t a skill anyone tracked. So the writer in her - the thing that gave her most potential - was ignored, and so unnourished.

However, the scent of a renaissance is now in the air.

New technologies are rapidly making assessments more reliable, less subjective, and less time consuming. For example, adaptive testing technologies (i.e., tests that evolve in real time based on student performance) increase the accuracy of the assessment and can reduce the number of questions a student needs to answer. Automated exam marking can reduce the subjectivity of grading for more qualitative subjects such as history, English, and creative writing. And personalised learning tools can integrate assessments into the day-to-day activities of a classroom, so teachers get real-time feedback on student performance, rather than having to wait until the end of a unit or semester.

In this new environment, assessments are no longer this conveyor belt of one-moment-in-time temperature checks. No longer do they rely solely on the assessed only having one chance to prove what they know. No longer do they simply produce the letters and numbers for someone to carry about for life.

Rather, the assessment renaissance is cultivating a new approach; a virtuous circle of insights, interventions, and improvements, where teaching and technology come together in perfect harmony.

The authors of the new paper detail the steps that policymakers, schools, teachers, and parents need to take in order to prepare for this renaissance. Among their recommendations is an investment in training teachers, so they can better use technologies to make assessment less subjective, less time consuming, more reliable, and ultimately more purposeful.

When Jodie was just beginning her teaching career, she said one statistic in particular left its imprint. Only 10% of students who were assessed as below average at the start of secondary school went on to achieve good grades by the end. She told me she wanted to know why, in all the intervening years, they weren’t able to uncover the reasons why 90% of students weren’t getting better? When, Jodie asks, will assessments become less about pleasing the school management team and more about understanding how she can become a better teacher and help her students achieve their ambitions?

Well Jodie, the renaissance is upon us.

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Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment is authored by Sir Michael Barber, Pearson’s chief education adviser, and Dr Peter Hill. It is available at research.pearson.com.