How schools and colleges can take assessment reform into their own hands

Three ways that schools and colleges can help build an assessment system that better reflects the strengths of each young person

Rachel Macfarlane Director of Education Services, Herts for Learning

As a teacher, there’s nothing more rewarding than celebrating with triumphant students on results day. When they achieve the necessary results to proceed to the next stage of their education, progress to a training opportunity or secure employment, it’s wonderful to share that moment with them.

Sadly, it’s just as heart-breaking to stand with a young person as their hopes for the future are dashed.  Those that have been unable to secure the grades they needed for their planned next step are unclear as to what their future holds for them and their self-esteem is severely dented.   

But the saddest part is that, in so many cases, it isn’t the young person that’s failed.  Instead, they’ve been let down by an assessment system that reduces 12 or 14 years of schooling to just a series of letters and numbers.  And it is students from more disadvantaged backgrounds that are most likely to miss out under the current system, as this recent report from the IFS shows.

For the last two years, the Rethinking Assessment coalition has been setting out a workable roadmap toward designing an assessment system that helps every young person thrive.  Much of what we are calling for needs to be activated at a policy level.  However, there are things that schools and Further Education colleges can start doing now to make assessments fairer, more accurate and, frankly, more useful to future employers and to young people themselves. 

Across the country, schools and colleges are already taking this task in hand.  And the results have helped transform the learning experience for young people.

Here are just three examples of what schools and colleges are doing:

  1. Creating a digital profile for each young person– schools and colleges are beginning to work with local employers, to create a relevant learner profile for each student.  These profiles typically contain a breadth of information on their achievements and the skills, including the “three Cs” – collaboration, communication and creativity, which are so essential to today’s workforce.  Because a range of achievements are presented in a variety of different ways, the employer gets a much better sense of what a young person knows and can do.
  2. Introducing alternative assessment formats – once young people can display their achievements in a profile, it gives scope to enable a variety of assessment formats to evidence learning.  Sometimes it might be appropriate for a learner to take a test to show what they’ve learnt.  But much of the time it is more relevant for them to present their learning through a video/orally, or a visual presentation, which is much more reflective of what they will be asked to do in the workplace, and indeed in higher education.  
  3. Creating real world learning opportunities – too many young people have been let down by an outdated assumption that all learning happens in the same way and in the classroom.  But when educators are able to provide a range of learning methods and styles, it opens new possibilities. A growing number of schools and colleges are introducing inquiry-based learning into the curriculum, which enables students to take a real-world issue or challenge and study it from an interdisciplinary perspective. This also allows for learning to be assessed in a variety of different ways and for young people to showcase the breadth and variety of their achievements. Without the capability to display achievements in a digital portfolio, it would be much harder to make good use of alternative assessment formats.   

Rethinking Assessment has recently put forward a proposal for a digital learner profile.  Such a concept is already used in schools around the world. It offers an opportunity to create an assessment system which values the breadth of strengths of each young person and is at the heart of helping young people truly reflect what they have learnt during their school career.

This piece was first published in the Schools Week Assessment Supplement

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