The future of assessment is very hard to predict, but schools and teachers must take time to engage in this debate otherwise they run the risk of following change rather than leading it.
Reforms to GCSE and A Level mean that so much time is currently spent implementing curriculum change that a lot of focus has been on content and delivery. Assessment is, of course, a vital part of this process but there is a wider picture here. Across the world assessment is changing with technology and this offers both opportunities and challenges. What will assessment look like in 2020, or 2025?
Glenys Stacey, CEO and Chief Regulator of Ofqual, said recently that there had been “a quiet revolution in marking in the past ten years”. Much of this is due to the move from paper-based assessment to e-marking. Teachers have so far coped admirably with this transition when set in the context of wider innovation within the British system. Yet concerns about e-literacy and the cost of using new technology means that progress has been uneven. Part of the problem lies in the attitude to using technology. Many teachers lack confidence in their skills and whilst many would welcome the chance to undertake training they don’t have the capacity to do so. Workload and time are key factors. Compare this to pupil familiarity with electronic media. This is their social modus operandi; how often do you see teenagers communicate with one another through text or apps when in close proximity to one another? Young people have next to no fear of technology and will readily engage through it, so teaching which capitalises on this will benefit from a well-advanced skillset.
Coming back to assessment, it seems we’re at an interesting crossroads. There are two options:
- The essence of assessment won’t change – in structure, skills, or demands – but it simply migrates to being online.
- With a brave new world of technology at our feet we scrap traditional assessment and explore new opportunities which assess skills needed now and in the future.
Let’s take on-line marking (e-assessing) as an example. I started external examining in the days of receiving and sending huge bundles of scripts via the post. Managing these piles and doing the admin on them was every bit as stressful as just reading and marking the scripts themselves. Since then I’ve used e-Pen and RM Assessor for online marking. I would never, ever want to go back to paper marking. I know examiners who gave up after many years of practice just because of the move on-line but I honestly can’t see why. Not only do I find it easier and faster, but the benefits are clear for pupils too. Standardisation and quality control are much better and the appeals process is quicker as well (vital for those who need a remark to get into university). I regularly use Turnitin for class-based assessment as I can get the benefit of on-line marking whilst also teaching pupils a valuable lesson about academic honesty.
Despite my enthusiasm for e-marking it still represents option 1; pupils write with pen on paper and the fruits of their labour are laboriously scanned and uploaded. The actual assessment itself hasn’t changed at all. Should it? What are the merits of option 2? I saw a presentation of the new e-assessments developed by the IBO. This was done by Gareth Hegarty, Head of MYP Assessment, and (unless I misread the reaction in the room) the immediate response was overwhelmingly positive. Imbedded videos and fluid diagrams allow pupils to respond to different media and answer new kinds of questions. They need to be pretty web-savvy to navigate through the test but this is no more challenging for them than it currently is trying to identify which set of questions they need to answer in an exam paper with multiple options on offer.
This means we can ask different kinds of questions. As an historian, I’ve always trained pupils to look at sources (say, a political cartoon) and write answers about the message, or make inferences. A recent debate has emerged in which a strong argument was made for a prescribed list of sources or a set text. Pupils could tackle a period or a writer in-depth by learning a collection of sources and can then be presented with a selection in the exam room (or on the screen). Imagine how this might work if we exploit new technology. They could download their own source(s) to answer an open question. Or they can explain the process of investigation by selecting websites from a search and evaluating them for content and reliability. It doesn’t take long to sit down and think of all the things that might be possible in any subject once freed from the constraint of a fixed paper.
Challenges are inherent in all of this. There are the usual cries: what if the power fails? Or the work is lost? What about cut and paste? These can all be answered. Indeed, they must be answered – though that’s for another article. Beyond that the big issues are to do with teacher training. Can CPD budgets cope? Do teachers have time? The likely answer for most heads would be a flat ‘no’ on both counts. Then we have the exam boards. How and when will materials/software be disseminated? Will teachers be given enough practice assessment materials and how will they mark them? Or will they have to become website and database engineers too? What if someone hacks an exam board and destroys/sells all the data? Thankfully teachers won’t have to resolve these issues, but educational providers will.
What I would predict is that these hurdles will have been cleared within a decade and possibly much sooner. I’ll be amazed if pupils are still writing with pen and paper under the gaze of an invigilator in 2025. After all, consider this: you can’t pass your driving test without doing the hazard perception. This is a great example of a national e-assessment which is very different to traditional tests and has worked well for years. So if new assessment is likely, start thinking now. It would be nice to be ahead of a change for once, rather than being on the receiving end of it.