Bacon butties, hot dogs, and exam grades

We need to learn to communicate better if we want people to engage with the assessment community and trust in our qualifications.

Hot dogsIs it a good idea to rely on the media to communicate important messages about education and assessment to the general public? Probably not.

Academics have looked at what happens to research findings once they land in the public domain and in the news media. Perhaps unsurprisingly a news reporter’s job is to focus on what is ‘newsworthy’, and often that doesn’t include the subtleties of underpinning concepts, data interpretation or methodological weaknesses. A great deal of important detail gets lost in translation or abandoned as uninteresting.

For example, one study, on the influences of nutrition on cancer, found that obesity was a major risk factor in developing the disease. The authors recommended ‘moderate consumption’ of salt, alcohol, high sugar and energy foods, and red and processed meats. By the time this was reported in the news media, however, ‘moderate consumption’ had become something quite different, and the emphasis had been placed on the ‘dangers’ of popular foods, with many focusing, for some reason, on bacon sandwiches and hot dogs:

Stay trim and stop eating bacon (The Guardian)

Is anything safe to eat? Cancer report adds bacon, ham and drink to danger list (Daily Mail)

And perhaps the best: Careless pork costs lives (in The Sun)

What can we learn from the bacon butty?

Education is a high profile public sector that attracts considerable media attention, particularly around exam season. However, many commentators have argued that the assessment community needs to be more proactive in sharing evidence on the reliability of different assessment methods and qualifications. Ofqual recently completed a two-year study gathering data on exam reliability and considering communication issues, and in February 2013 a whole issue of a high profile journal was also dedicated to the topic (the Oxford Review of Education’s Special issue: The public understanding of assessment).

How can we share our messages about assessment reliability with the general public, so that they have more trust in the system and can view news stories from a more informed standpoint?

There are three things we could consider (and these are only a starting point). The first is to find interesting ways of ‘framing’ or talking about assessment reliability. It’s a fairly dull, specialist topic but it has important consequences for the people who take and teach national qualifications.

The second is to focus on what the user needs and will find useful and engage with. Dense, technical descriptions might put people off, whereas something accessible, engaging and – importantly – usable, might stimulate interest.

Finally, as assessment specialists are typically known to each other but not to many others, we need to recruit people who other people are interested in or will listen to – peers, colleagues, family members, friends, teachers, admissions tutors, head teachers, examiners, Facebook/Twitter groups... These ‘influential peers’ can engage with, and pass on messages on behalf of, the assessment community.

Continuing as we are will not help us to communicate better with the general public about assessment reliability. Instead, we need to start talking about novel ways of engaging with the public, making assessment interesting, and encouraging a deeper understanding of assessment reliability among the key users of our qualifications.

AQA has taken some first steps towards improving communication of assessment issues and has released an animation that explains how exams are marked and graded.

Suzanne Chamberlain

Suzanne has recently published two papers on this topic in Research Papers in Education and the Oxford Review of Education.

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