Spotlight On: Assessment

1 March 2018

This article was first published in the Queenwood weekly newsletter on 23 February 2018

To-do lists. Colour-coded calendars. Flashcards and vocabulary lists. Mind-maps, summary notes, practice essays. Rapid heartbeats and clammy hands meet furiously clicking pens and jittery knees. Stomachs churn and tempers fray.

Students and parents alike will no doubt recognise one or more of these cues as an indicator that an assessment task (or four) is looming. At some imperceptible point on the learning journey, the excitement of going to ‘big school’ wanes and the terms ‘assessment’ and ‘school’ become virtually synonymous in students’ minds. Often at a similar point, students may begin to associate nerves, anxiety or pressure with every utterance of the word assessment.

Survey any teacher about the purpose of assessment, whether responsible for a tribe of Kindergarten students or a Year 12 cohort on the brink of exit exams, and you will likely hear phrases such as ‘monitoring progress’, ‘facilitating deep learning’ or ‘ensuring students understand content or ideas’. Students, on the other hand, are more likely to respond emotively and articulate feelings ranging from excitement and anticipation to stress, self-deprecation and a sense of being judged.

So why is a fundamental part of learning perceived in such disparate ways? And how can we transform the assessment landscape into a more hospitable space in which students feel confident to take educational risks, privileging process over product?

We could blame the media melodrama that seems to begin playing (and replaying) annually, usually a few weeks before the beginning of the Higher School Certificate; we could critique the recent government decision first to marry exit qualifications in Year 12 with NAPLAN results in Year 9 and then to rely on additional testing instead; or perhaps it’s simply a semantic issue to which we could resign ourselves and move on to the next test preparation lesson.

None of the above attitudes or phenomena can be reconciled with Queenwood’s commitment to a liberal education, facilitating the development of intellectual rigour, integrity and perspective in our students. While teachers do and will continue to encounter misconceptions and anxiety about assessment, the rich practices in our classrooms (and beyond) are testament to a belief in the virtues of balancing a culture of assessment with a culture of thinking. Reshaping student perceptions about assessment involves ongoing discussion, reflection and open-mindedness: for students, teachers and policymakers.

Many subjects are this year beginning the phased implementation of new HSC syllabuses (English, Standard Maths, Science, History), which will be examined for the first time in 2019. Significant changes have been made to the structure and form of assessment in these courses (and indeed across the HSC) to facilitate a necessary and welcome shift away from a culture of rehearsed summative assessment, and towards depth of content and a privileging of formative learning experiences. Hopefully, these policy-level changes will go some way towards bridging the gap between student and teacher beliefs about assessment. At the very least, the changes offer great opportunities for open and frank dialogue about what assessment means, and where its true value lies.

An unscripted question posed to students in the middle of a lesson assesses learning. A glance at a student response over a shoulder assesses learning. A 60-minute test with multiple choice, short answer questions and an extended response assesses learning. Interdisciplinary projects in which students design museum exhibits or build mechanical props for school theatre performances also assess learning. Each in its turn, and in context, can provide equally valuable assessment data for teachers to use to inform future learning experiences. Further, and vitally, each can be the catalyst for dialogic feedback: a conversation in which student and teacher come to a shared understanding of the learning that has occurred, and the steps needed to engender further progress.

And the value of assessment? Assessment is valuable because every ‘assessment’, formal or informal, is an opportunity in waiting. Assessing student progress at individual, class and cohort levels, provides vital information that can contribute to better outcomes one step, three steps, a year or a decade down the line. From errors, from formative experiences, from feedback, students learn about themselves – their skills, their knowledge, their learning processes – and how to forge their own definition of, and path to, success. Teachers learn more about their students and engage in reflection and responsive adjustment, working in tandem with students to attain that success.

When the to-do list transmogrifies into a beastly-looking creature and the post-it note collage swallows the wall, the key questions to which we must all return are these: what kind of learning do we want? And what do we value about learning? When the instinctive answers involve understanding, grit, and growth, and the word ‘assessment’ is subsumed by ‘learning’, then everyone gets an A+.

Amy Hall
Head of English