The Megaphone - Testing, testing...
Apr 21, 2016 | The Megaphone | by guest columnist Greg Cudmore
Cartoon: Martha Campbell
Fifty years ago in late November I sat for my seventh three-hour matriculation exam paper. For us, final examinations were just a fact of life. That’s how students had always been assessed. A whole year’s work assessed in a three hour marathon exam, set and marked by an external authority. Teachers had no say in one’s marks and, if successful, one was awarded a certificate.
Since then assessment has become a political football with a whole range of approaches, all decrying the inadequacies of their predecessors. This assessment hodgepodge often mirrored the latest perceived orthodoxy. Let’s ditch external exams and normative assessment in favour of criteria-based assessment. Let’s scrap marks and replace them with grades. If we are to have schools without failure our assessment tools must be wooly enough to allow every student to pass. Then the pendulum swings and we urgently need to address falling standards. We reintroduce external testing including NAPLAN and other devices to monitor and moderate teachers’ grades.
One reason for this confusion is that there has been a lack of consensus about the purpose of assessment in schools. For example, Year 12 results have invariably been used to decide university places. This translates into the whole secondary curriculum being hijacked to prepare students for these de-facto university entrance exams. Schools then slavishly assess their Year 7 students using the same assessment regime which the students will encounter in Year 12. This leads to the absurdity of Year 7 students writing 35 page research projects, largely cut and pasted from the internet, which will be assessed against complex criteria which include higher order skills such as analysis and synthesis.
Assessment is fundamentally the means to ascertain whether students are learning effectively. The grades they achieve at the end of Year 12 will eventually mean nothing in adulthood. If universities need a mechanism to select students, let them devise their own tests and not contaminate the assessment that should be happening in schools.
Ideally students should be assessed continuously and organically. That is the way we learn most things. We learnt the most complicated skills like walking and talking without sitting for exams. We simply got immediate feedback and assistance when and if we needed it. An effective teacher knows their students’ achievement levels without recourse to their exam results. An effective teacher is constantly assessing their students’ progress and providing immediate feedback. We want our students to love learning not because of the threat of failing or the praise we dole out for scoring good grades. Surely what is more critical than a final grade is how much progress a student has made? Instead teachers teach to the test. Curricula are strangled because we have to cover what might be on the test. Oh for the day when students will no longer ask, “Will this be on the test? Does this count?”
Assessment has hijacked the education process. Instead of it being the servant, it has become the master. Much of what happens in the classroom cannot be effectively measured anyway. Attitude and values, creativity and emotional, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence and so many other virtues we want to inculcate in our students are given second billing because we can’t measure and easily assess them. Of course assessment has a place in the classroom. But since I struggled to recall that Latin conjugation in the final minutes of my last matriculation exam, the tail of assessment has still been wagging the education dog.
by Greg Cudmore
The writer has recently retired after 45 years teaching in Independent schools in Victoria and Queensland.
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