The future of qualifications and assessment

by Dr. Mick Walker. Vice-chair of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors

On February 15th, Pearson launched a consultation on the future of qualifications and assessment for the 14-19 phase. This adds to the growing number of discussions around the place and purpose of educational assessment arising out of the Covid-10 pandemic. Unlike some other calls, this consultation takes a broader view of the context in which qualifications and assessment operate. The consultation considers three broad areas:

  • conditions and Environment: exploring shifting requirements of the digital first generation and how wider economic, technological, and societal trends are impacting both the demands of, and requirements for, today’s learners;
  • purpose and Value: considering the role that education within the 14-19 phase should play in helping develop confident and well-rounded learners and supporting their life aspirations; and
  • trust and Equity: exploring issues around fairness and coherence in the system to maintain public confidence in qualifications and assessment, and to ensure that the system delivers equitably for all learners and serves the diversity of the UK.

Consideration of the broader context is essential and I welcome Pearson’s approach. A link to the consultation is provided below and I would encourage anyone with an interest in our education system to submit a response. I also believe it would make great sense to see a unified approach to the challenges ahead involving all of the awarding bodies, perhaps orchestrated by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) and the Federation of Awarding Bodies. No doubt some will see these bodies of having a ‘vested interest’ in maintaining the place of high-stakes examinations and assessments, but we should remember they have considerable expertise in this area, many years of experience in designing and administering assessments in a regulated environment together with holding the position of guarantors of standards expected by the general public, employers and all other users of qualifications.

The pandemic will continue to impact on every aspect of our lives for some time to come. In the field of education, Covid has posed difficult and urgent questions about how to respond in a manner that maintains learning and protects the interest of students as they face key examinations and tests that will impact the rest of their lives.

Some of these responses have been met with despair amid concerns over fair and equal access to educational instruction and equity in the awarding of qualifications.

And as we enter a second year in which major examinations have been cancelled and replaced by alternative approaches such as using centre assessed grades, broader questions are now being raised about the longer term future of educational assessment. Even in so called ‘normal times’ questions about the fitness for purpose of qualifications and approaches to educational assessment are important and should be constantly under review. However, as I have argued in earlier papers, we need to ensure that assessment does not become the sole focus of debate, but rather part of a wider review of the purposes and expectations of our education and training system. Once these are clear, we can turn to the most appropriate and timely ways of measuring what we value.

Educational assessment provokes strong feelings – and rightly so. But it should not drive the education and training system, so we should be wary, but not dismissive, of calls for change. Much of what is currently being aired as change has been seen before and we should learn from our history as to why these various approaches have failed or faltered in the past. This is not to say that they are not worthy of consideration, far from it.

But the past is littered with educational initiatives often in response to a short-term crisis or shift in political ideology. Surely it would be far better to raise the arguments above short-termism or opportunism and look to a broader more stable consensus. In short we need deeper, more nuanced consideration of what a twenty-first education system should look like. And even now, children entering schools will see the twenty-second century and encounter challenges and opportunities we are yet to imagine.

We should be looking to design a system that caters for the known and the unknown. This is no small challenge, so we have to be as grounded as we can be and draw our conclusions from healthy and open debate and not one restrained by narrow agendas, frustration or simple reflex actions.

We need an education system that reflects and supports a society that is fair and equitable, that offers the very best in education and training to every single child regardless of location or background. And much of this will be dependent on how we manage other broader aspects of our society. Scrapping an examination, no matter how attractive to some, will not rid us of social inequality, and history tells us that simply replacing one manifestation of educational assessment with another is unlikely to solve the wider challenges we face.

To be clear, I do  welcome the growing interest in questioning and potentially reforming our approaches to and uses of educational assessment, be that in the classroom on a daily basis, in the context of high-stakes examinations and tests or as a means of accountability.

But this has to be driven by the expectations of our system of education: and this is not simply designing a school or college timetable with ‘x’ periods of mathematics and ‘y’ periods of art and design, or introducing an assessment of creativity or problem solving. Rather it has to be driven by what knowledge, skills and understanding we want to pass on to our children so that they can engage and enjoy learning and play a full role in a fair, equitable and high performing society. And these expectations do not belong to any one group but rather across society including learners, employers, educationalists, parents and carers.

The Pearson consultation has a focus on key stages four and five: but this needs to expand to include all educational and training provision. Any consideration of the future of our education system should not be bound by constructs such as key stages but encompass pre-school and early years through to further and higher education and professional development. Tinkering with a key stage has broader consequences, like a row of dominoes. In my view, key stages are a hindrance and only serve to create false boundaries and breaks in learning that work against coherence.

Teaching, learning and assessment are a trinity and we have for too long situated assessment as something external, something done by others to ‘us’ or even some form of classroom gimmick. We have neglected to develop and share our understanding of educational assessment – its uses, misuses and limitations, and this needs to be addressed with some urgency.

The system has become over-reliant on externally set and marked examinations and tests in what has become a gradual but systematic marginalisation of the teaching profession in high-stakes assessment.

However, if teachers are to regain their professional status in this aspect of education, they need to be better prepared, better trained and better recognised as for example Chartered Educational Assessors (CEAs). And this is not just in the context of ‘high-stakes’ assessment, but in the every-day process of teaching and learning. Indeed every assessment that impacts on a pupil’s learning or develops a teacher’s understanding of the needs of their pupils is in my view high-stakes.

But assessment has to be taken more seriously as a core skill of the teaching profession; it is not a side show or an add-on or something done by examination boards, but a discipline in its own right. It encompasses external standardised assessments leading to qualifications just as much as those minute by minute interactions in the classroom, and we should appreciate the challenges in producing fair and equitable assessments for a range of purposes far more than we do. Indeed, if we had greater understanding, we could reduce some of the over-burdensome and invalid activities carried out by some schools under the false description of ‘assessment’ that only result in unnecessary workload.

We need examination boards and we need regulators: but we also need a highly qualified and respected teaching profession if we are to break the over-dependency on examinations. But trust has to be earned.