Let's think about 'Rethinking Assessment'

Mick Walkerby Mick Walker, CIEA Vice Chair

Over the past few weeks, there have been calls for a discussion around ‘rethinking’ our assessment system, much of it captured by the mass media in snappy headlines that I fear may do a dis-service to the underlying debate. Educational assessment should be constantly under review and should not only be driven by the goals of our education and training system but be subservient to it. In this blog my intention is to call for a deeper more nuanced debate that rises above political or any other dogma and to question the motivation for change – and importantly, to examine the veracity of alternative proposals. From my experience, change does not always mean better, so we need to consider any proposals with a healthy level of scepticism.

I generally welcome any discussion about educational assessment and I’m sure the recent flurry of interest will be welcomed by the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA). Indeed, the CIEA, of which I am the vice-chair, is constantly involved in discussions about assessment and developing knowledge, understanding and expertise with the purpose of promoting excellence in educational assessment wherever it takes place. Nevertheless, all that follows is my own personal take on recent developments and therefore not representative of the CIEA.

The calls for a discussion have been accompanied by newspaper articles and tweets stating that the exam system is a mess, or scrap GCSEs and that next year’s A levels and national curriculum tests should be cancelled. Some of this is generated by Rethinking Assessment, concerned university vice-chancellors, a former Secretary of State and teacher associations. It is hoped by some that this will result in a discussion about educational assessment and longer-term changes to our system.

However, we need to be clear that these calls are coming from different constituencies and for different reasons, and that all have been met by reactions of support and opposition. Phrases like ‘starting with the GCSE’ make me nervous: discussions aimed at a more holistic systemic level do not, especially if the motivation is clear. I’ve been around too long to be fooled by the notion that change automatically means progress.

Whilst I really do welcome a groundswell of enthusiasm to discuss assessment, I want to be assured that the discussion and motives are bound by reason, based on sound research and in the best interests of our system of education and training. I don’t want to be identified by a slogan or a headline: education is too important for that and should not be dogged by political or any other dogma.

For a start, consideration about how we approach high stakes assessment in the context of the covid-19 pandemic needs separating out from ideas of longer-term reform. In short, one is very urgent, and specific to the context of the pandemic, the other less so, but equally important. The CIEA in partnership with the Chartered College of Teaching and Sir John Dunford has written to the Secretary of State with recommended actions to help tackle 2021 so let’s put this to one side for the moment.

So that leaves the long term. Without any doubt I support some of the aims sitting behind the intended discussion. For example, the need to recognise the full range of a young person’s strengths, the eminence of a rich, broad and balanced curriculum, and the need for broader criteria on which we judge our schools. The use of examinations and tests as the basis on which the performance of schools is judged and rank ordered is at best na├»ve and at its worst, an abuse of the purpose for which these assessments were originally designed when performance tables were introduced in 1992. However, the last round of qualification reforms did include accountability as a purpose.

But I have to ask what’s really stopping schools from offering a broad curriculum? The GCSE has already been singled out so let’s follow that through. For a start, it’s not statutory, yet some schools stand on how many GCSE options they offer. Why not stick to say 5? And while some schools complain about the exam, they proudly boast of their pass rate and use examination outcomes to measure and set goals for the performance of their staff. Elsewhere, some schools also use ‘competitive examinations’ as admission hurdles.

Yet other schools do offer a rich curriculum. So, what can we learn from them? Is it down to fluke or strong, brave and inspirational leadership? And why do some schools talk of the worth, even parity of other so-called non-academic subjects then stick them in options boxes that immediately convey a message of inferiority?

I also hear headteachers complain about Ofsted inspections then hang massive banners outside their school gates advertising their ‘outstanding’ status. It’s little wonder that pupils feel the pressure – especially where their performance is ‘tracked’ within an inch of their lives – usually by the use in-valid data.

I am further troubled by teacher association delegates speaking of the harmful impact of tests on pupil’s wellbeing then going back into their respective schools and administering such: surely this is unethical.

I also hear calls for recognition of other qualities in our pupils like teamwork, creativity and problem solving. I agree. But do we need to certificate everything that matters? And if the decision is made to certificate these qualities, how will these be judged and against what agreed construct, performance criteria and by whom? In this respect, we would do well to look again at what happened to the National Record of Achievement – or for that matter the Diploma, the GNVQ (part one and part two) and the CPVE.

If every school, group of schools or even a local authority produce their own system, what currency will this have beyond the locality from which it derives? Such an approach was used by schools when the GCE O level was introduced as a way of providing a leaving certificate for the 6% or so who didn’t stay on to the age of 16 and then on to GCE A levels: this resulted in the Certificate of Secondary Education in the 1960s later to be absorbed with the GCE O level to become the GCSE – by this time intended for 96% or so of pupils. And although the period of compulsory education and training has moved so it can be argued that the GCSE has outlived its purpose, the majority of pupils do make a change at the age of 16 going on to A level or vocational routes, and often in a different setting, so this may be the last time they study history, geography or drama for example.

And what if these new areas of the curriculum such as creativity become measures of school performance; are we back to square one, different domains but the same usage? And given the nature of such often ill-defined constructs, they are likely to be at least equally plagued by levels of reliability.

Again, if we look back into history, we can see how teachers have given away control of education assessment often in response to concerns over workload. Look at responses to the Norwood report of 1943 that presented a vision of teacher-based assessments and more recently, in key stage 1 and 2 assessments where teacher-based assessments are no longer part of the statutory framework so as to ‘reduce teacher workload’. And look how trust in teachers’ assessment has been highlighted as a concern - from John Major in the early 1990s, the removal of coursework and controlled assessment over the last few years and the NAHT Commission on Assessment’s finding: "That there worrying lack of trust in individual teacher-based assessment, which emanates from within the profession itself (2014, p15).

I do understand the workload issues, but I believe assessment is a core responsibility of the teaching profession, so if workload is an issue, perhaps other things should be dropped or reduced. Further, if we are to simply roll over in the face of questions of trust, we have a real problem as a profession.

My advice for what it’s worth is that we should be looking more broadly across our education and training system as a facet of the 21st century and not starting by allowing the assessment tail to wag the dog. We need deeper consideration – and we need to start in the right place. Tinkering with bits of our system, especially around assessment, just leads to problems down the road.

We should also recognise that some of our assessments such as those used in general and other qualifications are actually well conceived and well regulated, qualities that are recognised internationally, so let’s not get the quality of the assessment confused with wrongful use of the results.

Self-evidently, examinations and tests have their flaws – as do all forms of assessment – and we need to be more up-front about this and recognise the impact of human fallibility on all forms of assessment.

So, starting our discussion in the wrong place is the equivalent of repairing the roof when the foundations are shaky.

We need to address the purpose or purposes of our education system. Further, we need to agree a consensus around the vision and present an accountability system that makes sense, and to be fair some of the blogs on Rethinking Assessment promote such an approach: I applaud this. But we must move forward as a profession with a professional perspective and voice and not one that gets trapped into slogans. Calling for things to be changed is the easy bit: offering concrete, workable alternatives is far more demanding and therefore frequently missing in educational discourse of this kind.

At the moment we are disjointed, trust is lacking – and not just from outside of the profession – and so unfortunately is expertise. I don’t intend to be harsh, but we have to recognise that generations of teachers in post have not had the experience of developing a curriculum or have studied the philosophy of education.

Nor have they expertise in educational assessment – a particular concern and one we really need to address if we are to rebalance internal and external assessment, and importantly exploit its use in the process of teaching and learning.

None of this suggests that teachers are incapable; far from it. But years of a national curriculum, centrally designed and administered assessments, lack of appropriate content in teacher education and professional development are to blame. Teachers are bright, motivated and dedicated people. They just need the opportunity and we, collectively, need to rebuild professional capital by proposing thoughtful direction that can be supported by sound research and professional development.

We, the teaching profession, should therefore be instrumental in developing a consensus about the purpose or purposes of our education and training system that has its eye on the future but learns from the past: design assessments that are fit for purpose and importantly, establish a profession that is not only integral to the development and delivery of a curriculum and assessment framework, but is recognised as such.