Assessment: What’s the Fuss All About?

By Mary Coverdale, Executive Director at The Learner First Australia.

The COVID-19 pandemic has perhaps unwittingly created a sliding doors moment in education. One consequence has been a global awareness of the scale of educational inequality that reflects the broader social issues which have spawned a deep divide in communities across the globe. While equity concerns have primarily centered on access to online learning and the disparity between the “haves” and “have nots” with regard to computers, Internet access, and levels of support in the home, remote learning has also prompted discussions around assessment—namely, the complexities and complications that exist in a system that has attempted to patch traditional modes of testing into contemporary learning environments. Assessment methodology as we have known it has expired. In many ways, it has served as a barrier to the gateways students have to career options, effectively excluding rather than including many of our learners. Now, we have an opportunity to reflect on why, what, and how we assess, and to examine how our practices do or don’t serve the best interests of our students and communities. We must ask the question: for whom do we assess? Is it done for the system, or for the benefit of the learner? We have to place students at the center of assessment.

It’s undeniable that our students’ experiences and futures differ greatly from anything the teaching profession, let alone the world, has experienced in the past. The uncertainty that existed prior to the COVID crisis is now amplified, and in managing the unpredictability of what has been a powerful external influence, nations, systems, and schools have scrambled to limit its impact on learning outcomes, adapting teaching and learning models to try to maintain student progression. Perhaps ironically, the situation has provided an existential opportunity to better and more meaningfully reach our goal of “every student succeeding,” because it has offered us a richer and more holistic understanding of student, and human, success. With that, the door is open to adjusting our assessment modalities to match this understanding, while also maintaining the integrity of achievement standards.

Why is assessment so important? Assessment outcomes can inform identity, create human hierarchies, and open or close gateways to opportunity, particularly in terms of career choices. There’s no doubt that the assessment “playbook” is being challenged in ways that are part cultural and philosophical and part driven by equity in a world where the historical division between blue- and white-collar workers is increasingly blurred by new industries and social structures. These old, culturally embedded ways of perceiving the worth of or predicting potential pathways are tropes that must change in order to respect and respond to the needs of our learners and expand the viable life opportunities they can access. But old habits die hard. The bias in our system toward single measures that represent cognitive or academic outcomes to the exclusion of other inherent and learned competencies runs counter to respecting and valuing the diversity of every child and their abilities—the beautiful differences that make up the richness of complementary skills in our communities. The rhetoric in well-being and inclusion policies that claim that all students should succeed hasn’t transferred into systemizing ways of assessing that reflect the breadth of student aptitudes, dispositions, and interests beyond cognitive capacity. What we currently have is a completely reductionist methodology that is inauthentic, unjust, and out of touch with our current world reality. It’s hard to know how or why a “one-size-fits-all” way of assessing the success of a student maintains its legitimacy in our complex and chaotic world. What is to some a sensible, logical shift to a fairer system is to many, inside and outside education, a radical disruption that will undermine achievement standards and threaten the system itself. But, like in any evolving system, there comes a time for a retune to reset design for optimal performance.

“Teach the whole child” is a long-standing mantra that has meant many things to many people. It is well reflected in valiant attempts by practitioners to engage students in their learning by shifting pedagogical practices, adjusting curriculum, and engaging in well-being programs. However, some students learn to “fail school” from an early age, and that learned failure becomes a part of their identity. The belief that they are “no good at school” becomes vested in their mindset, which then impacts their engagement and overall behavior. It also negatively impacts their future. Students are led to believe that if they’re no good at school they’ll be no good beyond it. But that isn’t the case—there are so many ways to be successful in life, and we have to reflect that in our systems of assessment.

The concept of 21st-century skills is tired. For decades, there has been evidence that the skills our students require to be successful and healthy citizens are much broader than those reflected in academic prowess. It’s accepted that a combination of social and cognitive skills is what nourishes and nurtures us and enables us to flourish. In a simple sense, the need to embed these basic skills requires a combination of capabilities integrated into pedagogical practices. Our quest must be to have these skills valued by the system and to systemize ways of assessing and measuring them. At the moment, teachers are being asked to fit a square peg into a round hole.

We know that assessment for and as learning works best when the student is involved in the process of reflection and feedback, and that this agency creates student engagement. How often do teachers share the achievement standards with their students? It seems not often. And yet, when learning goals are precise and reflect the standard, when students are given choice about how they will demonstrate those standards, and when they collaborate to undertake the learning, it enhances both well-being and academic outcomes and supports the development of important dispositions. It seems like such a straightforward understanding. However, in reality, it’s anything but.

How and what we assess are governed by deeply held assumptions about summative assessment. Many teachers assume that the word “summative” refers to “the sum of learning outcomes.” But, better still, summative can and should refer to “a collection of learning evidence”—evidence which can then be synthesized, measured, and reported. When understood in this way, assessment is no longer simply a culmination by which students are separated into the “good” and the “bad,” but instead a process through which students are given opportunities to evidence their learning in personally relevant ways, develop key outcomes, and grow individually and collectively.

The language of assessment must shift in a period when long-held certainties are shifting as well. The concept of a test or standardized exam being “fair and equal for all” is being challenged on the basis of equity and inclusion, two key drivers of a contemporary education system. These two drivers, when unpacked with an eye toward the purpose and nature of assessment, raise challenging questions about bias and the status quo of practice. Leaders and teachers, when confronted with change, often cling to “the way we have always done things here,” determined to apply past concepts to present practice. Progress is often undermined by a view of what’s expected by the system—by the system, for the system, of the system! This creates an essential paradox.

The teacher in the classroom is confronted with the impossible task of serving two main masters: (1) the moral duty of care to differentiate instruction and assessment in ways that support every child to experience success in their learning journey, and (2) the requirement to report an overall academic grade for each student to the system—a grade which must be consistent and comparable across schools, reflect an accurate understanding of each student’s learning levels (demonstrated against the achievement standards), and reflect a thorough knowledge of curriculum content. The tension, here—big data principles versus differentiation for the individual—is the tension between wanting to know and understand students on a holistic level and having to report evidence that’s considered valid and reliable. Professional capacity and trust are at the center of this conversation. So, too, are anxiety and fear. Activating the reflective practice of teachers to not only adjust the curriculum and pedagogy, but also to differentiate what they collect as evidence of learning, is a quantum culture and practice shift for many teachers. On top of that, even when a teacher diligently collects evidence, moderates that evidence, and uses it alongside a test or exam, there are still concerns that the teacher’s individual judgement shouldn’t be trusted. This reflects a tragic erosion of community perception of teachers. Teachers are professionals—we need to treat them that way.

What skills do we value in our students in 2021? Do we believe that the real value of education exists in knowledge transfer or in the development of a broad set of competencies and other outcomes, including knowledge development, which enable and empower students with the skills to find their way in the present and future? What are the implications of our beliefs for systems and schools? It’s time to take what we now know and understand and map it to a new way of thinking. We can enable the necessary shifts by building teachers’ capacity, supporting them to be confident and competent in teaching and assessing capabilities alongside academic skills, and in becoming activators and facilitators of learning as opposed to merely “expert adults.” If we truly believe that the nature of evidence of progress and growth is the key—that differentiation, personalization, validity, accuracy, focus, and alignment lead to equity and inclusion—then change is necessary—not soon, but now.

Efforts in this space will benefit greatly from approval and permission from the system itself. But progress is possible and already happening—grassroots practitioners with high moral purpose are paving the way. Their experience suggests that it’s important that teachers have guidelines and support to undertake the following:

  • Know the standards
  • Know the capabilities
  • Know the students
  • Ask the students
  • Develop inquiry questions
  • Determine pedagogies
  • Apply the curriculum
  • Apply learning progressions (ongoing) – embedded and aligned across domains
  • Gather evidence of learning
  • Synthesize evidence to create a reportable measurement

From uniforms to assessment, we have been wedded to consistency in our application of the rules. It’s a broad-brush methodology loosely justified on being equal or fair to all. But it’s led us instead to exactly the opposite—we’ve learned, without realizing it, to discriminate on the basis of cognitive capacity. We have learned to justify inequity. We’ve learned, through focusing on exams, to justify exclusion. The rules are first, not the child. The dominant narrative must shift, so that the learner takes center stage, the teachers are supported to put learners at the center, and the skills we see emerging from our school systems represent those that both the child and the world need.