Beyond the boxes - Assessing assessment: a value-creating challenge
27/11/2011 - "Beyond the boxes - Assessing assessment: a value-creating challenge" by Donal Carroll

Beyond the boxes - Assessing Assessment: a value-creating challenge      

First, a question for educators: what is the source of this extract? It starts with staff being told that becoming an Academy won’t change their conditions to which the writer says: ‘sounds like about as convincing as separating parents telling their kids that the split won’t affect them: two weeks later mum is hooked on Prozac and online poker, while dad spite-fucks his girlfriend on mum’s faux-fur rug.’ And later: ‘A public school sponsoring a state academy is like the lord of the manor shagging the scullery maid…’

This is funny, outrageous, and typical of Ann Thrope (Ms) and why it became the most read column in the TES (Times Educational Supplement). Previously called the ‘Dark side of the whiteboard’ it has recently been toned down. However, while enjoying it, I’ve noticed that however iconoclastic the general writing about the life of a secondary teacher, when she talks about key elements of teaching itself, all the insight, wit and new ideas seem to disappear.

Here she is talking about assessment: ‘progression is to be made dramatically overt… management want a detailed look of what it might look like… secretly hoping a range of exemplary lessons show clear evidence of attainment… while students brandish their latest peer-marked assessments..’ Then her seemingly most powerful refutation: ‘that’s not likely to happen in English. Given the subjective nature of what we teach, those lessons where we can irrefutably demonstrate student progression, are often predictably dull, driven by narrow literacy objectives…’ Now humour aside, this raises huge issues which one could hope an experienced teacher would take in her stride eg how to make progression more visible, how to include meaningful peer-assessment, how to create meaningful ‘English’ assessment criteria wider than ‘literacy’, and above all, the role of assessment and self-assessment in effective learning.    

In another article in the same issue ‘Hand-off approach: adapting teaching styles to suit the new controlled assessments’, another experienced teacher (member of D+T Association Innovation group and a senior examiner) comments: D&T assessment has moved from ‘coursework’ to ‘controlled assessment’, though two years on, not many teachers seem to be aware… now teachers cannot credit pupils if they have given them additional assistance… To achieve best results, pupils have to show a clear understanding of what is required. He then suggests that posters can be used to display the criteria and train pupils to mark their own and others’ work and also to evaluate and justify their assessments.

While respecting that these articles are meant to be different in tone, what do they tell us about assessment? A coherent practice based on the importance of the role of learner assessment; a confident grasp of measuring learning as a  key value-creating activity; less an end and more a means to effective learning for all learners? A traditional nuisance –that always (falsely) summons the end of learning?                                        

There is a lack of conceptual confidence that effective learning must mean developing the learner’s ability to self-assess properly –that is increasingly more accurate, valid and reliable. In other words teachers locate the role of assessment as a crucial but single aspect only of a learning culture for learners, designed to develop critical, creative independent learners –as high performing providers have done. Then we can have appropriately framed assessment exchanges where increasingly students ‘evaluate and justify’ not just their assessment judgements but a critical understanding of ‘what is required’ (the assessment criteria) before, during and after the assessment. And increasingly, adding in more value elements, as a continuing process.

Yes, it’s a challenge and means slowly generating more learner autonomy and control –but over time, easier for teachers when learners are pushing learning not behavioural boundaries. They continually build learning power empowering them to face a more uncertain future.  

This issue -for teachers and managers - of effective measurement, whether of individual learners or organisational performance is a huge one. Weak measurement is a strong barrier to more effective organisational performance; it clouds where they are now (as generally a form of denial) and in turn obscures the scale of improvements needed. According to OFSTED (TES FE Focus 25/11/11) –said of the college sector though applying elsewhere- a key weakness is ‘overgenerous lesson observation’ by internal staff.  Again, it is a reluctance to grasp the role of this measuring –as a key value-creating enabler- that hinders more enduring sustainable success both for individual learners and organisations.  

A final point: though –let’s call it ‘the negative exhilaration’ of some writers is attractive- it would be good sometime to see educational writers prompted by the exhilaration of success. Hey! We have trucked through difficult ideas which endure in all organisations and built something which guarantees success!

What do you think?


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