The Messy World of School Assessment

Assessment should be used to improve teaching or make other education-relevant decisions, not to judge students
Information about students rather than judgement.

Learning about and presenting on school assessment is as mad as a bag of hammers, to mix a metaphor. The purpose of assessment in schools is very muddy. Is assessment to tell parent something? To motivate students to do better? To give teachers information for targeting teaching? As a summation of learning? As/of/for learning? A combination of the above or something else entirely?

If you’ve been a teacher over the past twenty years the answer no doubt is: Yes, all of the above and many more, in no apparent order or hierarchy.

Our belief is that assessment information should be used to improve teaching. The formative use of assessment has a much bigger impact on student learning that a summative use of that information.

Assessment should be used as information to improve teaching or make other education-relevant decisions, not to needlessly judge students, as is often the case at the moment. Just take the frankly idiotic obsession with letter grades: A-E. These are worse than meaningless, because they imply some kind of meaning when none exists. An ‘A’ in a subject tells us nothing about what a student can do, nothing about what they need to do to get better, nothing about how they compare to the average student, nor are they comparable between subjects or between years.

Using developmental rubrics and a criterion-referenced assessment systems avoids these problems and has benefits for all education stakeholders. Parents know what their child can do, what they need to do to improve and generally see more motivated children. Students know what they can do, not what they can’t, and are explicitly told what it looks like to get better at some skill or use of knowledge. Teachers can use the information to target teaching and improve their own pedagogy.

With developmental rubrics as the building blocks, schools and school systems can produce progressions of skill, and assess students against that, rather than a meaningless letter or number. Student progress can be measured using an external, objective scale from year to year.

There is a clear benefit for diverse learners in this situation: those at the bottom and top of the ability spectrum are much more motivated when assessment gives them information and advice, rather than judgement. We should measure and promote progress, not just achievement.

Ben will be presenting a session; Let’s focus on progress, not just achievement! at the Diverse Learners Symposium, 17 & 18 June 2022 at the Melbourne Convention & Exhibition Centre