Returning the teacher and the student to the centre of assessment
By Andrew Flory, CIEA Trustee
A key narrative in our perception of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the sacrifices made to control its impact are things we should learn from. At its crudest this is voiced in the comment “Never let a good crisis go to waste” ascribed to Churchill, but more nobly it is clear that many feel not to do so denies the herculean efforts made for others by frontline workers in society. UNICEF for example led this year’s Earth Day by linking the unity stimulated by the pandemic to an even more determined effort to tackle climate change: “The massive global response to COVID-19 leads us to the question: what can we take from the pandemic to tackle the climate crisis?”1 Whatever our motive, as educators the changes forced on us by the measures needed to control the pandemic have left us little choice but to think about how to deal with their consequences for education. My aim here is to respond to the ideas put forward by my CIEA colleagues in this area and, I hope, add to them.
CIEA’s approach to answering this question has been expressed in a series of blog posts and a webinar, COVID 19 and the award of qualifications in summer 2020. In these it has explored primarily the impact of the cancellation of the summer 2020 session GCSE and A-level examinations in most of the UK. Quite rightly much of the focus here has been on how the best interests of students and the validity of the grades awarded can be secured and the decisive action taken by both government and Ofqual was rightly lauded. However an important area of the webinar, for which there was necessarily only limited time, was precisely the question of how the consequences of what is a watershed moment should impact practice. Mick Walker, who led the webinar, went on to highlight in an associated blogpost that “the arrangements for 2020 present us with a rare opportunity to take stock of what it is that educational assessment is really trying to achieve and ask ourselves how best this might be done”.2 This was stated even more strongly by Sir John Dunford, a former chair of CIEA, in a further blog, where he says, “This is a crisis that needs to be used to develop a better system of examinations that does not rely entirely on end-assessment and which uses high-quality moderated teacher judgements in ways that increase both the validity and reliability of the grades achieved by the students”.3
It seems then that the call to action is clear, the question is what form should this action take and how can it use existing knowledge, understanding and teaching personnel?
While it is difficult to imagine the disappearance of end point assessment entirely, due to the perceived reliability it conveys, it is clear that the pandemic has revealed the inadequacies of an assessment system that excludes the teacher almost entirely. There are other challenges also, at least in systems such as that used in most of the UK where teachers have been progressively excluded from and deskilled in high stakes assessment, leading Mick Walker to ask, “if we have reached a point where we cannot trust assessments undertaken by the teaching profession in high stakes contexts, is it still worthy of the title ‘profession’?”4
In two blogposts in CIEA’s newsletter, On the Mark, CIEA trustee Joanna Goodman highlights, however, two important areas that offer, I feel, a direction and a way forward. The first, on home schooling, looks optimistically at the possibilities offered by the fact that “The new norm is teaching and learning which are not tied to space.”5 This highlights, among other things, the value and liberating aspects of online or other remote learning methods. In the second, written before the pandemic, on the future of education, she argues that education needs to shift from the delivery of curriculum to a “learning centred” practice6:
This shift from curriculum-centred learning to learning-centred curriculum, where the focus needs to be on developing learning self-regulation and autonomy, requires the change in assessment focus from testing aimed at assessing knowledge and understanding to assessments that match the objectives of the learning-centred curriculum aimed at teaching higher order learning skills relevant to further studies and future career development.7
“Self-regulation” and “autonomy” are the central terms here and Joanna goes on to show what this means in terms of practice, where: “schools are faced with the challenge of developing autonomous learners capable of their own mastery of learning”.
This is important in that it changes the student’s position in the learning assessment equation, transforming them from objects, where assessment is something done to them, to autonomous, self-regulated learners for whom assessment is more directly part of the process of learning. A number of opportunities arise here many of which are already in process and can be scaled up to meet the needs of a more effective system of assessment that could replace the current reliance on end point assessment.
The first area to look at is online teaching, learning and assessment. There are an increasing number of providers supplying this in support of courses leading to high stakes assessment8. Most significantly the best demonstrate the fact that online learning is a pedagogy, not an alternative delivery method. Even without the impact of the pandemic online learning and its enabling of blended learning will be central to the future of education and it is hard to see why every school is not taking on at least one online course of this kind to support the development of online pedagogies in their school. Furthermore online methodologies intersect with the learning centred curriculum and, in their use of the flipped classroom, naturally promote autonomy and self-regulation in learners.
We should also remember that the world of assessment was not entirely determined by Michael Gove’s removal of coursework in GCSE’s in 2013 and the demise of controlled assessments and there is plenty of long established and innovative work we can draw on. The International Baccalaureate, for example, continues to successfully use moderated internal assessment and externally assessed coursework in almost all its courses usually comprising 30-40% of the marks awarded and it is of course central to much vocational education. It is clear then, as John Dunford suggests, that an integrated system of moderated internal assessment is a way forward and can open the door to the expanded use of methodologies such as portfolio assessment. An argument can be made here that this will exponentially increase teacher workload, however, where assessment is more fully integrated into teaching this is not generally the case, Moreover, allowing students the greater agency and autonomy that come with self-regulated learning and potentially support from Approaches to teaching and learning methodologies9 for example, repositions the teacher as a fellow learner, allowing them to use practices of skilful neglect10 to target their intervention at the point of learning need rather than focusing on the mediation of content..
There are many other encouraging developments to look to. Innovations in both the delivery and theory of assessment are creating numerous opportunities to make the assessment of student learning a more sensitive and humane instrument. The development of screen based assessment, for instance, opens the door to a more dynamic assessment experience where the process, tracking how a student solves a problem, for example, as well as the product can be assessed. As well as this the potential of adaptive assessments and a more integrated approach are all realizable possibilities.
It would be crass to use the tragedy of the pandemic, the full dimensions of which continue to unfold and are still unknown to us, as an opportunity for a “new start” in assessment but the current crisis has left us little choice. Furthermore it can be argued that for too long learning has deferred to assessment and parents and teachers with usually no choice but to follow the processes mandated by successive governments in the UK and elsewhere have had little choice but to be complicit in this.11 The unravelling of formal assessment provision has however revealed deficiencies in teacher training and the support of students that we have no choice but to address. Organisations such as CIEA with no dependency on any commercial providers or political allegiance, are well positioned to support schools, teachers and assessment bodies in the process of returning assessment to meet the needs the of the student.
1 https://www.unicef.org/stories/lessons-covid-19-pandemic-tackling-climate-crisis accessed 23/07/2020.
2 https://www.herts.ac.uk/ciea/articles/new-article 23/07/2020
3 https://johndunfordconsulting.wordpress.com/blog/ accessed 23/07/2020
4 https://www.herts.ac.uk/ciea/articles/new-article accessed 24/07/2020
6 https://www.herts.ac.uk/ciea/articles/the-future-of-education accessed 27/07/2020
7 https://www.herts.ac.uk/ciea/articles/the-future-of-education, accessed 23/07/2020
8 An example of this is Pamoja Education (https://pamojaeducation.com/#), which began as the only authorised provider of the IB Diploma Programme online, but which now also offers online delivery of A-Levels and IGCSE.
10 See, Schostak, John F., Breaking into the Curriculum: The Impact of Information Technology on Schooling, Chapter 6, London, 2019
11 See for example the response of parents to the intention to retain blended learning in Scotland past the return to schools, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-53111180