Visible Learning could end exams

A national system of Assessment for Learning could replace exams entirely.

As New Zealand and my 15-year-old daughter enter their exam season this year, I have my annual frustrated reflection about the realities of what they actually measure and their divisive results. The recent exam fiasco in the UK where the government failed to successfully use an algorithm to gauge student results due to their mistrust of teachers’ judgements also had me and the UK thinking about the inequities, validity and purpose of making such judgements.  We have to remember that the exam culture most of the world lives with was developed over decades, all of which had a societal comfort in social hierarchies and thus using exams to divide communities into recognised class, gender and race groups seemed like an ok idea. Exams results worldwide have always and continue to correlate strongly with socio-economic, gender and race lines. Inside and outside education, 2020 has been a year of challenging these inequities and many educators are hoping that high-stakes standardised testings becomes another victim of these international pressures to finally progress. 

Teaching in New Zealand, I have a further frustration in that our government runs two contradictory approaches to assessment. The first is encouraged up until the final 3 exam years on a system of curriculum levels. There are eight levels covering the skills and knowledge from the age of 5 to 18 in each of the 8 learning areas (subject disciplines). Schools are encouraged to use a internationally recognised system called Assessment for Learning (AFL) to help students navigate their way from one level to another. In the government’s AFL guides it has some very interesting statements that seem at odds with our qualifications system in what makes positive and purposeful assessment. 

The guide to Assessment for Learning explains to teachers that “Assessment should inform teaching and learning. Give yourself permission to stop any practices that are not contributing to this.”  I wonder if the qualifications process might “give themselves permission?”

It contains advice that assessment should NOT be:

  • something that is “done” to the students, without their involvement. Students see it as a “test” and something to be worried about.
  • carried out at times only to provide information for school leaders or outside providers.
  • Analysed by a select few in the school, and results are presented to teachers.

It goes onto say that purposeful assessment is where

  • Students are involved in assessment processes and they see it as a learning opportunity.
  • Sound teacher judgments are supported by reliable assessment tools, and ongoing classroom observations and conversations provide information on progress and achievement.
  • Effective moderation practices establish “what good looks like” at a range of levels. Student exemplars are used to illustrate different levels of achievement.
  • Teachers are assessment and analysis capable and take an interest in working with class/cohort data to establish student pathways for learning.

The shift suggested by this is to emphasise the positive nature of learning and development with shared and visible reflection about and tracking of progress. It encourages a move away from school-centred assessment for ranking. Teachers support the idea that school is meant to be about learning but the tension comes when the habitual need for school exit ranking to decide future pathways becomes the single focus. A whole society brought-up on an understanding that we have to have a single moment of ranking misunderstands how learning happens and how success can be tracked as part of the process and not seperate to.

The UK exam fiasco, showed a clear lack of trust in the teacher judgement. This is because the school system and thus approach to teaching is determined by this urge to rank on exiting each school stage and not based on involving the teachers and students in on-going, visible and agreed reflection of success and progress. The government were uncomfortable in having to replace their low-trust reliance on external testing with suddenly involving the teachers and students. The Economist covered a little history behind this century old belief in the dehumanising approaches taken by the late 19th century’s promoters of Scientific Management.. The algorithmic approach was actually the last choice by the UK qualifications authority but the Conservative government pushed for it, resulting in too many result mistakes and a very reluctant U-turn to use teacher judgements.

I believe this low trust model exists for a number of reasons but one of them is that education is understood by most as simply a ranking system and so the question becomes who and what is ranking the students and what quality is that judgement. Students are only focused on ranking too. Students have often been able to tell me their result in a recent assessment without being able to go into any explanation as to what it contained. It is here that I would propose an end to all high-stakes / high pressure testing that are fully proven to be inequitable and thus meaningless. The results are well documented to correlate strongly with socio-economic status and the impact this has on a student’s resourcing and support, leading to vastly differing levels of engagement and willingness to succeed in such an abstract system.

Below is a snippet of “On a plate” by Toby Morris. It brilliantly shows how exams and other ideas of measuring personal ability and status are meaningless in a complex world.  Full version available as a cartoon here.

The alternative already exists!

If we combine the positive ideas of Assessment for Learning with an acknowledgement of the many flaws of high-stakes testing I can only conclude we need to seriously consider an alternative that essentially already exists in some countries’ education systems. 

Assessment for learning asks teachers and classrooms to make learning progressions visible in the classroom. These learning progressions become an integral part of all learning activity. The most obvious example of this would be to have the progressions literally outlined very clearly and concisely on the walls of the classroom with student exemplars. This and other approaches allow for an ongoing transparent dialogue between student and teacher into the progress they’re making, resulting in an agreed, positive and purposeful understanding of progress and current success. John Hattie’s regular research report on what works in schools, frequently puts student reported grades as most impactful on success ahead of 250 other influences on children’s learning.

If a nation agreed to classrooms consistently developing an environment of Assessment for Learning where there are open and transparent activities designed for students and teacher to track, feedback and reflect on strengths, weaknesses and gaps in knowledge and skills as part of the learning, then maybe this “AFL record” could be what formed the final record of achievement for a student. This record would have been visible and moderated all along as it developed with the student, teacher and school agreed in what it reported about the learner. 

If we had no exams and a exiting school was centred on students’, teachers’, schools’ and parents’ involvement in a national system of learning progress and transparent dialogue, teachers could return to a focus on learning and progress and not preparation for the divisive and alien environment of exam silence.