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Posted by Philip on 8 April 2017, 11:32 am in , , , , ,

Assessment – where it works and why it doesn't

The issue of assessing students has come under fire in recent weeks, with international tests revealing student performance is plummeting. Science presenter and particle physicist Professor Brian Cox has said, "if the measurement of ... a student’s progress ... is removing time from practical science, then it had better be bloody useful because practical science is bloody useful."

Students taking a test

The problem I see with assessing students in the uniform way in which most schools do — most usually through written assignments and tests — is that it's a one size fits all approach to measuring performance. It doesn't work for many because students are complex, dynamic and  diverse.

Students have different learning styles, they are changing hormonally especially during adolescence, they are negotiating social relationships, experiencing a range of emotions and becoming aware of themselves and the world around them. All these dynamics affect their performance and yet, at the whim of a deadline or timetable, they must measure up to a certain standard or face circumstances that can negatively influence the future of their education and even their adult life in terms of career opportunities.

The authors of Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed distinguish between processes that are simple, complicated and complex — baking a cake, building a rocket and raising a child, respectively. Using these examples I think it's safe to say that assessing the quality of a cake or rocket is relatively unproblematic — the cake tastes nice and the rocket takes off.

However, assessing a student's skills to bake a cake or build a rocket by having to write about them rather than actually doing them, is troublesome because of the complex nature of humans and because we're assessing the complex skills of conceptualising, remembering and articulating in written form, not the actual skills themselves.

Assessment works for simple and complicated activity, but it doesn't work for the complexity of humanity, particularly when it's done through uniform means in an educational system with such high stakes.

Simple and complicated things can be usefully assessed. Complexity needs to be observed, nurtured and steered towards success. That's where I think education needs to be heading — and it needs to change direction soon.

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