Are we clear about what we are assessing?

 

In some schools this remains the dominant form of assessment

In some schools this remains the dominant form of assessment

Providing fair access and accommodation for all students in conducting assessments and in examination situations is clearly a topic of critical importance to students, teachers and parents and one that needs to be regularly revisited. This is not simply a case of seeing how access can be provided, but also requires an understanding of what is to be assessed and why. In my experience, when teachers talk about making reasonable accommodations they are usually concerned with how examination arrangements can be changed rather than giving much thought to the questions of the purpose of the assessment to be applied.

It was with a degree of apprehension that I agreed a couple of days ago to make a presentation on developing assessment for learning to promote more inclusive practices, to a gathering of school principals and other teachers at the Council for the Indian School Certificate Examinations (CISCE) conference in Bangalore. CISCE is an official body with responsibility for overseeing the examination system for a large number of schools, and has a responsibility making judgements about which students are entitled to receive accommodations. At the beginning of the day I was unsure of how my views on the lack of equal opportunities which has plagued examination systems for so many years would be received. A couple of trusted colleagues had told me to anticipate some opposition, so my plan was to ensure I had identified escape routes that would enable me to get out of the building relatively unscathed.

As things turned out, any misgivings I may have had were quickly dissipated by the warmth of reception I was given and the positive responses from my audience. It immediately became clear that when I suggested that students may play a part in self-assessment, and that they should additionally have opportunities to evaluate the teaching that they received, there was a good deal of agreement in the auditorium. Similarly when I gave examples of how written examinations may obstruct the ability of some students to demonstrate their learning I noted a general nodding of heads and was pleased to see that even the psychologists, many of whom have a major role in assessment appeared to see the point.

Two further presentations from Dr Neena David and Ms Navaz Hormusjee confirmed that CISCE are sincere in their commitment to defining more equitable access arrangements, and that there are already good examples of the application of more inclusive assessment approaches in schools. Whilst there was a certain harmony achieved between our three presentations, without a doubt the most constructive part of the event came in the form of a question and answer session with a thoughtful and lively series of questions and comments from participants which certainly challenged those of us sitting on a panel.

Many issues were discussed, but the most animated debate concerned the ways in which students who struggle with reading and writing should be enabled to exhibit their understanding and knowledge. There was a general consensus that a significant number of students have acquired good subject knowledge, and have a command of all the issues required by the examination. However some of these students are invariably destined to fail an examination that makes demands upon their use of the written word. If the requirements of a history examination are to assess a student’s understanding of historical events and concepts, should he be prevented from showing his prowess in this area as a result of an examination dependent upon the skills of writing? Would an oral examination be appropriate in this situation, and might this not better enable the student to demonstrate his historical knowledge?

This issue is, of course, far from straightforward and demands a consideration of whether this student might be given an unfair advantage over his peers. What level of reading difficulty should a student have before such arrangements are allowed? Who would make this judgement? Under what conditions should such an examination be conducted? As I would expect from a group of dedicated professionals who have made the effort to attend such an event, there were many positive suggestions and no lack of commitment towards finding a solution. Beginning discussions on these issues may be as important as reaching conclusions.

Perhaps the most heartening aspect of today’s discussion was the supportive nature of the responses from colleagues who have some authority in issuing guidance in this area. They not only listened, but also engaged positively with the debate, noting suggestions and discussing how changes could be made. With such complex matters under consideration it was always going to be difficult to come up with answers that would suit all parties. But the willingness to share ideas and listen to a range of opinions was certainly an indication that much may be achieved.

At the end of the event there were many positive comments being made by departing delegates, some of whom approached me to tell me of the actions that they are already taking towards ensuring that pupil self-assessment and the use of formative approaches were becoming a feature of their schools. On the evidence of today’s sessions there are increasing numbers of teachers here in Bangalore who are willing to share their ideas and work towards a more inclusive approach to planning, teaching and assessment in their schools. I will observe future developments keenly.