Assessment must change

Innovation; Research
Professor Patrick GriffinProfessor Patrick Griffin is Executive Director of the Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills Project, and Associate Dean and Director of the Assessment Research Centre at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne.

Professor Griffin is currently a lead facilitator in Bastow’s Leading Assessment for Teaching course.

The old ways of assessment based on principles of measurement, specifications and item analysis for multiple choice test design have alienated teachers from testing because of the complexity of the process and the lack of meaning for their teaching practice. Despite the fact that the deficit method has been in schools for more than 100 years and it continues to fail, teachers persist in identifying deficits and trying to fix them without a scaffolding approach to intervention. Parents have been asked, even encouraged, to endorse a deficit model of teaching and learning. Teachers are afraid to take a new approach in case that too doesn't work.

Systems of education reinforce these old approaches by ranking students and schools using statistical comparisons to goad schools into action by focusing only on improving scores. In such a context, where the emphasis is on methods of objective test development, teachers are expected to have an advanced knowledge of statistics and quantitative methods. Consultants feed on this expectation by offering programs and in-service courses on how to interpret test and statistical data. Quite often they provide well-meaning but misleading advice, and teachers become even more alienated from assessment. They focus on low scores and the dangers of failure when they should be focusing on all students and the celebration of every student’s successes. The problem is exacerbated by teachers working in isolation rather than in collaborative teams such as those we discuss in the Leading Assessment for Teaching course (that is currently being delivered by the University of Melbourne in partnership with Bastow). In general, teachers’ assessment literacy is not profound and the current assessment literature adds to and reinforces the confusion around the use of assessment data to improve teaching.

The Leading Assessment for Teaching course takes a developmental approach involving targeted intervention based on the premise of readiness to learn. It assumes that everybody can succeed and that all we need to do is find out what each person is ready to learn and able to learn when encouraged by teachers who draw on professional knowledge of background factors to guide their interventions.

A developmental approach makes no assumptions about the effects of background factors on teaching and learning. In a deficit model, student demographics such as age, gender, race, socioeconomic status, language background, intellectual capacity and other factors are treated as explanations of why people have failed to learn. This course encourages teachers to identify, within a developmental paradigm, the point where students are ready to learn, and to intervene appropriately at that point. Then the background factors listed above determine how the intervention takes place, not why the student is struggling. We assume that if these factors are taken into account in the professional judgement of teachers to select the appropriate intervention strategy then every student will learn.

We regard the teacher as a facilitator, not an expert who passes all necessary information to the students. In a digital age, students can quite readily gain information through the Internet and other sources. Our role as teachers needs to change to that of facilitators. Students need to be taught how to critically appraise information as well as to access it. Teachers need to not only show students how to access information, but also give them the problem-solving and critical appraisal skills that are necessary in a digital age. Education needs to change: teaching needs to change and curriculum needs to change. And if this is to happen, assessment must change.