Testing time for assessment reform

Instead of judging student success only in terms of year-level expectations, assessment needs to recognise the progress that all students can make in their learning, and celebrate excellent progress regardless of students’ starting points.

Student looking down at his desk in classThe traditional practice in most schools is to assess students against the expectations for their year level, and to report success in meeting those expectations, usually in terms of A to E grades. The problem with this practice is that it fails to recognise that students of the same age and in the same year of school are at very different points in their learning and development. Typically, the most advanced students in any school year are about six years ahead of the least advanced.

This means that the same year-level curriculum is not equally appropriate for all students, and that a single standard of achievement can be misleading. When learning is judged as success on a common year-level curriculum, it is almost inevitable that less advanced students will struggle and achieve low grades, while more advanced students will achieve high grades – and this pattern is likely to be repeated year after year. A student who consistently receives a ‘D’ is not only unable to see the real progress they are making, but worse, may conclude that there is something stable about their ability to learn – that is, that they are a ‘D-student’.

Assessments must be designed for the fundamental purpose of establishing and understanding where learners are in their long-term progress in an area of learning at the time of assessment.

Such assessments provide teachers, parents, school leaders, governments and policy makers, and students themselves with information about where students are in their learning and the progress they make over time. They also provide information about students’ long-term progress in solving problems, communicating ideas, working in teams, evaluating information, and creating and innovating.

The reform of assessment thinking and practice has the potential to lead and drive improvements in teaching and learning, but assessment reform is likely to be difficult in the absence of broader educational reforms. For example, assessment to establish where individuals are in their learning is largely pointless if teachers intend to deliver exactly the same content to all students in a class regardless of their current levels of achievement.

The process of establishing where students are in their long-term progress in an area of learning depends on a deep understanding of the learning area itself. This includes a research-based understanding of how learning typically develops, of the role of prerequisite skills and knowledge, and common learning difficulties.

The time has come for the reform of educational assessment. We need to use it to understand rather than to judge learning, and make it an integral part of effective teaching and learning, rather than something that stands apart from, and follows, teaching and learning.

Professor Geoff Masters is CEO of the Australian Council for Educational Research and author of Reforming Educational Assessment: Imperatives, principles and challenges.

This article is based on one which first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.

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