Tuesday, 28 July 2009

eAssessment for schools - millstone or life ring?

Gerald Haigh's '5 Things To Think About' is an excellent blog from the NCSL covering all things BSF. Sign up to the RSS feed if you don't already.

His most recent blog details some very interesting developments in the field of eAssessment, particularly the pioneering approach a region of Norway is taking.

This made me think about the problem, and the opportunity of assessment. In my experience of consulting on multiple BSF and single school capital build projects, getting heads and teachers enthused about the transformational potential of ICT is an exciting process, but almost always stumbles against the, er, mixed metaphor of assessment hiding in the long grass.

"This is all very well," the Head of English/ Curriculum Deputy/ Chair of Governors will say "but I've got 190 year 11s who need to be able to write a coherent exam essay within 45 minutes or our GCSE results will suffer". They're right to be concerned as this is high-stakes stuff - schools live and die by their exam results and the league tables they produce. And this is the sticking point - one arm of government is promoting innovation and transformation of pedagogies, whilst another is forcing schools to continue orthodox practices, because of the requirement to be able to measure schools' performance. Summative exam results provide easily comparable data to do just this.

A similar mixed message can be seen in the Harnessing Technology strategy, which promotes the development of ePortfolios as the ongoing, slowly-growing, holistic record of everything a learner has achieved and is capable of. As a method of demonstrating a lifetime of learning, transferable ePortfolios are surely a more accurate description of students' ability and experience than a summative test (often of learned facts) at the end of a Key Stage. However, currently very few qualifications make use of this type of evidence of learning and therefore progress at a school level in the use of ePortfolios is unlikely to reach any meaningful level.

Even more fundamentally, we as a nation need to consider summative assessment in the digital age. When the entire cannon of human knowledge is accessible via your mobile phone's internet browser, should the measuring of one's retention of facts have such a dramatic influence on your future life chances? Surely post-Google, it's how you judge the reliability of information and then what you do with it which is more important?

It seems clear (to me at least) that the solution to the Assessment conundrum needs tackling at a policy level. Examination boards are eager to progress eAssessment; schools are gradually implementing the infrastructure to support it; students are keen to utilise powerful, familiar tools and wider evidence of their ability; but direction and impetus is needed from the different layers of government in Whitehall but also it's agencies and organisations such as Becta and Ofsted. Until a clear and unambiguous direction is set, the potential of technology to transform assessment will be hobbled.

So, let's imagine a future education system with a mature eAssessment model;
*ePortfolios and online 'stage not age' access to examinations provide the means to accurately measure (as I don't think we're going to get away from this requirement) the success of schools in helping students to make progress.
*The nature of these tools offer a genuine picture of learning, not only exam technique or memorised facts.
*Schools are freer to concentrate purely on learning, not the evidencing of this, and feel the confidence to innovate and explore different ways of doing things.
*Models of learning and of teaching are challenged and transformed, without the fear of a 2% drop in GCSE results hanging over practitioners...
*...and learners benefit from a system which concentrates on their learning, not the measurement of it