Mind the attainment gaps: What should “good” assessment look like?

attainment gaps
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Peter Collison, Head of Formative Assessment and School Platforms at RM, discusses what the education sector, and particularly the way in which the assess UK pupils, can do to eliminate attainment gaps in the UK

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a young person in possession of good academic ability, must be in want of the grades to prove it.

Last year, controversially, the decision was made to provide A Level students centre-assessed grades for the very first time. It meant that the culmination of each young person’s hard-work – and perhaps their future destiny in higher education, or employment – rested, for a brief time, in the hands of an algorithm designed to ensure fairness and equity. The algorithm achieved neither of these things and thankfully the eventual grades awarded were those assessed by the schools and teachers.

Fast-forward a year, and this time teacher-assessed grades have been relied upon (although perhaps for the very last time). And inevitably, this led to huge statistical variances in grades awarded and the highest levels of grade inflation for a generation. As a result some students were left unsure about their next steps and what the best option for them would be.

But whether for or against this kind of assessment, it begs the questions: with such high stakes, does anyone really know what “good” assessment should look like?

It should be fair

Perhaps an obvious one but assessing in a way that’s fair to every individual is a difficult thing to ascertain for any educator or assessment body. And assessing fairly doesn’t necessarily mean assessing each young person in the same way. In fact, it means the opposite, and therein lies the challenge.

Each person – as we’ve discovered from the last year’s remote working revolution – works, learns and socialises differently. Whether an introvert, extrovert, mature student or not, someone who learns better working towards a final exam or someone who buckles under the pressure of a hall filled with testing desks, it’s about understanding how to get the best from students.

After all, for any assessment method to be trusted and reliable – and not just for universities and employers, but for students and parents too – it must, ultimately, seek to eliminate the risk of attainment gaps arising that are not the result of the genuine differences in ability of those being assessed. Assessment bodies need to consider offering students more time where needed, or the ability to take exams in a different environment, or even whether they should ever take an exam at all if coursework works better for them – and those options should be visible and available to everyone.

In essence it is a fine balance between equity and equality – and in the case of education and assessment, both are critically important.

It should engage students

Now this shouldn’t be as shocking as it sounds.

Assessment ought to be interesting and properly engage students in order to get the best from them. Some students will be engaged by the assessment process already – or at least, elements of it – but it’s about super-charging that to ensure they enjoy it all and are excited to partake in it.

In fact, effective assessment should actually help pupils to learn. Consider your own time at school, how often did someone sit you down to talk you through what “good” actually looked like when it came to your schoolwork? Probably not very often.

But digital comparative tools can do just that and show high scoring examples from other schools that pupils can read through and learn from. Not only that, but these tools then help that learner to explicitly recognise and understand what makes this example a strong one – and how it compares to their own work. Research has shown that when this is done, as a simple intervention early during new learning, that learners of all ability levels get an attainment boost. This use of assessment tools and techniques to improve end outcomes has to be a key cornerstone in any new assessment methodology.

It should prepare students for their future

Today, pupils are keen for learning and assessment to match what they’d be doing in the “real” world of work and life. Take the example of accountancy accreditation as an example, there is already an accountancy body that is assessing students using exactly the same technology/IT they use in their day jobs – rather than dropping them into the dark ages with a pencil, paper, calculator and three hours on the clock,

This approach is incredibly impactful when we consider today’s job market. We’re increasingly moving towards a “skills society” – but against the backdrop of a skills shortage. What’s more, employers are already seeking more and more talent for the evolving jobs market driven by automation and AI, as well as a drive in new technical jobs, such as coders and developers.

Luckily, we are already seeing some strong advances in the move to digital assessment. We are seeing great examples of modern assessment design, combined with powerful digital assessment technology that provides an assessment experience that is both “Google proof” whilst focusing on higher order skills like knowledge interpretation and application, communication, problem solving and increasingly testing teamwork and collaboration skills.

The digital transformation of this country’s school system over lockdown is well documented and teachers have worked wonders to help support the move to remote and hybrid learning. Now, it’s time for assessment to keep pace with those changes and offer testing that eliminates bias, test real-life and on-the-job skills and introduce digital tools at an early age.


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