Turning the Lock on the Assessment Vault

By Mary Coverdale, Director of The Learner First, Australia.

By questioning and so challenging the assumption that an exam or test gives us the truth of what a child knows and understands, we dislodge belief systems and practices of 100 or so years. In dislodging these we challenge deeply held values and so enter the portal of culture change, the sort of change that’s most difficult for leaders to introduce, navigate, and effect in practice.

We can only change culture when we change the behaviors rooted in our beliefs and assumptions. In the case of testing students, these beliefs are ingrained by history. Teachers, parents, and students themselves have come to accept that the artificial construct of creating a human hierarchy of those who know and those who don’t is simply “the way it is,” end of story.

It’s so extraordinarily basic that it’s been largely unquestioned—until now.

Social, technological, and economic upheaval are creating a new force for change. Students’ bipolar vocational or academic skills journey can’t exist anymore. As educators, we fundamentally fail to appropriately create a teaching and learning environment if we don’t recognize and respond to the changed world our students enter when they leave our care. It seems that inside schools, it’s too close to be visible. We value the test and we pay some sort of consideration to capabilities, but the gravitas of the skills inherent in the non-academic part of our work is not comparable.

Our systems tell us that when a painter can explain the nature of the universe through artistic depiction, this is of lesser value than the scientific explanation. While both are valid, only one is acceptable as a way of reporting outcomes to the system. We are like prepubescent adolescents who haven’t quite matured into a broad understanding and acceptance of how we can recognize, in different ways, the skills our students have. There’s an incongruence in the anachronism of our current structures—we hang on to the old ways, and the world moves forward into a new way of thinking and working. Our systems hold on to tests and exams like a canoeist grabbing for the paddle as he goes over a waterfall—wrong tool, wrong time… too late!

There have been many attempts to shift practice inside the school gates to use data and personalize curriculum to cater for individual students. However, differentiation is the educational equivalent of the straw man in our system. It’s been held up as the way to target teaching to the learning point of need of all students, but as we morph into a maturity of understanding what our children actually need in their adult lives after school, we now know that our attempts at differentiation have largely been hollow.

The concept of differentiation infers fairness. It implies an understanding of a students’ levels and capabilities and it reflects, at its best, a sense of justice in the classroom where each learner is respected enough for a teacher to vary the curriculum and assessment to better their access. And there’s the major hurdle, the one that’s as difficult as Mt. Everest to climb: the differentiation of assessment. Currently the test is king—there’s a collective psyche regarding assessment, based on past accepted practice and perhaps an easier data collection process for our systems. Predominantly, because the system values the test or exam outcomes above any other, the message to leaders, teachers, and students is clear—“Get good at the test, it’s what really matters.” History is against us. Many teachers say, “It’s the only way to be consistent. It’s the only way to create an even playing field.” These seeds have been sown and harvested for the expediency of selection into university courses. It’s deeply cultural. But these commonly held beliefs defy the logic that is equity, that is differentiation at its essence. There’s a dissonance here that is proving hard to overcome.

We do differentiate. We make reasonable adjustments and alter the nature and levels of tasks. But the efforts to explore and implement formative assessment in some schools are spasmodic and often simply other ways of “preparing for the exam.” And when a teacher does determine a creative method of finding out what a student knows or understands, the system fails to trust their professional judgement or support them in developing alternative methods of assessment that would enable each student to “show what they know” in the way that best suits them.

And then, still, the test—that single measure—is held to be the truth teller, the thing that sorts people out and separates the top from the bottom. And don’t we love that. Creating hierarchies of our students to label them, like commodities, according to their academic worth. That label then defines that person, often for life—“I’m just a D student,” or, “I’m not much of a student,” or “I’m hopeless at school,” and on and on. We hear these phrases everywhere. “I couldn’t wait to leave school . . . it wasn’t really for me.” We have a pantheon of successful adults who have proclaimed they “failed” at school. Why? Well, first of all, they failed the exams. Second, the performance standards were only assessed one way at one time, failing to differentiate for the diversity of learning styles and ways of representing their learning.

I’m not arguing against performance standards. I am arguing that we can do better to enable students to demonstrate their learning in ways other than an exam. We don’t need to reduce rigor or the integrity of the standards. We don’t even need to get rid of the test. We do have to assess more flexibly and in a way that honors the value of every human being’s uniqueness and individuality, particularly in a time when innovation and entrepreneurship are primary skills that are needed to succeed in our complex world.

Some big questions are provoked. Does consistency of practice, a seemingly worthy goal, actually breed conformity and compliance, and so reduce our capacity to differentiate? Does focusing on clarity and coherence undermine the critical processes of creativity? Are we “boxing” our students to make the job of the system easier, forgetting that we serve our children and our communities, not the other way around? Does the system value growth or only the meeting of performance standards at the year level designated according to age? Is the concept of progress in and of itself rhetoric? These questions have to be discussed in an objective, non-partisan, balanced way, acknowledging that the skillset that students need and that the world wants has shifted.

Varying assessment, and synthesizing formative assessment outcomes with outcomes from a test, has profoundly challenged teachers who attempt this work. Why? As adults, they are unlearning deeply held values and beliefs about what assessment is and what it can be. Overcoming the mindset that the test must carry the most weight is a major cultural hurdle. It’s a quandary. We are servants of the system, so we comply with the system. The system pays us, and the system wants us to determine a measurement grade related to knowledge outcomes. It asks us to report on capabilities, but it doesn’t ask us to measure these particular skills. In doing so, perhaps unintentionally our system says that it’s much more important to develop your knowledge than it is to develop yourself. So teachers are stuck in the middle. Their students are incredibly diverse, they have different learning styles, different levels of academic progression, different socioeconomic profiles and health profiles—and it all becomes lost behind the number on their test.

Teachers understand that each child is different. It’s incredibly difficult for any teacher to say to a child, “Well, you’re a C, and therefore not as good as that kid who’s an A.” Our  assessment literacy must grow to embrace a broader perspective of what we value in our people. If we are able to trust the professionalism of our teachers to effectively moderate a range of artifacts that represent the knowledge, skills, and understandings of our students, we come some way to equity and a moral approach to our work.

Leaders, lead with your philosophy about what’s important. Comply with the rules and submit grades, and also demonstrate how your teachers can assess other key outcomes. The cultural change must be led within the school gates. It is possible to create pedagogical processes that will embrace varied ways of determining what a child knows. It is possible to trust the knowledge your teachers have about the standards and how those standards can be achieved. It is possible to moderate formative assessment artifacts against “the test” and determine a measurement that authentically reflects students’ levels of performance. This assessment literacy is the key to opening the assessment vault, and to finally unlocking real equity in learning.