I know I’m not alone in feeling – increasingly as the years roll by – that all too often the way we assess is at odds with the way our students (and we ourselves) actually learn and experience learning. While I and everyone else round the assessment board table is doing their very best to be professional, to ensure that procedures and regulations are followed, and taking great care to ensure that students are treated fairly and reliably….a bit of my brain is suffering from a form of cognitive dissonance and saying ‘This is nuts!’
There used to be a one of those car stickers that went something like ‘Do Not Adjust Your Mind…There Is A Fault With Reality’. And that’s how it feels. There seems to be a serious disjunction or faultline between what appears on the hundreds of assessment print outs – actual or virtual – and the actual day-to-day experience of learning and teaching, of creating work, of pursuing ideas, of encouraging and enabling students to really stretch themselves, to try out new things, to fail gloriously, to boldly go.
As teachers we need to – and are required to – ascertain, with as much validity, reliability and fairness as possible, what our students know and understand. For most of us, learning, teaching and assessment is a form of journey along the highways and byways of a particular subject. We, the guided and the guides, explore the landscape of the discipline. Our role as guides, more often than not, is to enable those we guide to understand the meaning and significance of what is seen, what is heard, what is felt, what is experienced.
Occasionally, because as guides we take our work seriously, and there are matters of accountability and responsibility that need to be attended to, we stop and check to see how much those who have entrusted their education to us know and understand, and what they can do.
In order to assess our students we stop acting as guides and essentially become researchers or purposeful explorers. We set out to discover what they know and understand, and what skills they possess. We ask them, demand of them, to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and skills. We assess them, evaluate them, judge them, measure them against a set of standards or criteria.
If it’s a relatively simple matter of fact or basic competence then it is relatively straightforward to test it. The student either knows who, or what, or when or how…or they don’t. But the landscapes we explore in education are highly complex, intricate, shifting, multi-layered, multi-faceted. Simple straightforward answers and simple straightforward questions are hard to come by. The terrain does not reveal itself easily. Nor should it. In such a landscape meaningful assessment is also highly complex, intricate, shifting, multi-layered and multi-faceted.
If we consider the types of assessment that dot the landscape, we can see a veritable bio-diversity of assessment. But this diversity is also a challenge, and it is worth noting just how many of these types of assessment result in assessment ‘data’ that is qualitative rather than quantative in nature.
But there is may be a problem with this: the more assessment involves qualitative information, the more subjectivity is involved. Now this would be mitigated and we would have improved reliability if we had strict or stricter assessment criteria and also more structured and proscribed content. But, and this is a big ‘but’, if we had those it would obliterate the essence of qualitative assessment in terms of flexibility, personal orientation and authenticity. Which brings us, eventually, to the question of assessment paradigms and to the Clash of the Paradigms.
Next instalment: Assessment at the Edge 2: Clash of the Paradigms