Assessment design

Assessment design potentially incorporates all areas of the production and delivery of public examinations, from setting out what should be taught and examined to the way in which it is assessed and marked. In public examinations in England, the national curriculum along with the essential knowledge, skills and understanding that should be present for all qualifications in any subject is set by central government, but the assessment processes themselves are devolved to the private sector. Varying degrees of control are exercised over these processes according to government priorities: at present the climate is one of deregulation with a largely free market monitored by a government regulator, Ofqual.

Most public examinations in England are developed, set, marked and graded by teams of experts employed by awarding bodies. The main form of assessment has traditionally been essay style questions supplemented by shorter, constructed answers. This explains why there is a focus on marking reliability in the assessment literature in England, as it is the cause of most unwanted variation in candidate grading.

Some part of the assessment for most public examinations, however, has usually consisted of coursework or extended assessments taken under controlled conditions in schools, or project, practical or performance work. These assessments are marked in schools subject to a moderation process. Whenever a new mode of assessment has been introduced the validity is investigated. Ideally the validity of any assessment mode would be assured before released; but such design changes are often introduced by national policy decisions, leaving little time for validation.

If the format, and quite often the content, of the assessments themselves have remained little changed over the last fifty years, however, the structure of examinations has evolved greatly, prompting intensive periods of research. A great deal of expertise and knowledge was built up in the transition to a unified system of examinations for all 16-year-olds, the GCSE, and in various structural changes that have been made to the main university entrance examination, the A-level. Research has focused on areas of comparability between awarding bodies, over time, between levels, qualifications and different subjects.

The future of assessment design depends very much on the extent to which on-screen assessment takes hold in England. While all assessments will soon be marked on-screen, very few are currently taken on-screen. This inertia can be explained in part as high stakes, essay-based questions are perhaps the least conducive forms of assessments for on-screen assessment. It is perhaps time to ask, however, whether the essay remains the most valid form of assessment in an age where a blog posting is quickly becoming the lengthiest piece of writing anyone writes or reads.

Christopher Wheadon, Head of Scientific R&D

Share this page