Assessment – What does it really tell us?

Every August the youth of the country – their parents and teachers too – await the results of public exams.  Some are lucky and get the results that they need to set them on course for a university degree and a successful career.  Other students are not so lucky and have to start looking at options that they had not considered.  They may still achieve success in life but their path may well not be as easy as for those students who got the results that they needed.

Students, parents and teachers celebrate the success of students.  School managers scrutinise results and there will be a headline on the television news about the percentage of students achieving A grades rising again.  A politician will condemn falling standards and say it that it used to be better ‘in my day’.  This is all so predictable but what do our public methods of assessment really tell us about our students and their performance?  We like to think that a student who gets an A grade in physics, for example, is far better at the subject than a student who achieves a C grade, but is this really the case?

I have taught countless students at both A level and GCSE and it is notable that often students who are able to articulate similar levels of knowledge and understanding in class get very different grades in exams.  I would contend that the same level of knowledge and understanding is required for a C grade and an A grade.  The difference between the A grade student and the C grade student is often in the way that they present what they know.  The A grade student will be very explicit in what he writes and include all the steps in his arguments.  The C grade student will write down those points that he thinks are important.  His arguments may be a little less coherent because they may make leaps from one point to another.  The A grade student essentially gives the examiners what they want and answer the questions in the way that the examiners required; the C grade student didn’t.  And this decides their futures.  But it may not tell us who is ‘better’ at the subject being studied.  Exam success really only tells us how good students are at taking exams.

Coursework or controlled assessment is even more fraught with difficulties.  Many people have rubbished coursework arguing that parental input can be important; that students can receive feedback and refine their work on a seemingly endless cycle; that it disadvantages those from deprived backgrounds.  All of these criticisms are more or less valid and certainly the government has reduced the amount of this style of assessment in recent years.  I am convinced that the biggest factor involved in coursework achievement is actually none of the above; it is the understanding that the teacher has of the assessment criteria.  Often a student will produce a decent piece of work that the teacher knows will achieve poor marks because the student has overlooked particular things that the moderator will expect to see.  There is no possible way that the student could know what these vital things are without the input of the experienced teacher.  A prerequisite for coursework success is how well the teacher understands the moderator’s requirements, it does not simply reflect how well the student has responded to the given stimulus which is patently unfair on the student.

Recently I was on the interview panel for a head teacher’s post.  I asked a question about safeguarding and the candidate did not answer the fully.  If this had been an exam the candidate would be achieved less than half marks for the question.  If I had not been able to ask supplementary questions the interview would have been terminated at that point; the answer was not good enough and safeguarding is a vital part of a head’s job.  I was, however, able to ask targeted supplementary questions that probed the candidate’s understanding.  His answers showed that he was aware of all the issues involved and that his understanding was in fact perfectly adequate and he stayed in the process.  Because the assessment was interactive the candidate was able to show his true capability rather than being limited by the assessment method.  I am convinced that a significant proportion of our students would achieve far better results with a more sympathetic method a of assessment.

Research tells us that success in one field is a poor indicator about potential in another field but the country is still fixated by grades in public assessment.  Success in public assessments tells us one thing and one thing only: how good a student is at dealing with public assessment.  The trouble is, success in public assessment is used as a proxy for success or potential in so many other areas.  At best this practice is lazy and at worst, it is damaging to the young people who are subjected to it.

Assessment – What does it really tell us?