“We should have more assessment,” some say. “No, our children are being over-tested,” others retort. “We should do away with assessment!” This “testy” issue was debated once again when the Ministry of Education recently announced a new policy to do away with examinations for all Primary 1 and 2 students. One educator shares her reflections on the topic.
Assessment is a testy issue, especially in Singapore. Everybody has an opinion about assessment. It means different things to different people. And when people react or respond to changes in assessment policy, they are reacting to a different aspect of assessment.
What is assessment, and why is everyone so hung up about it?
1. Purpose(s) of assessment
“It is interesting to note that the term assessment is derived from the Latin root assidere meaning ‘to sit beside'” (McTighe & Ferrara, 1998, p. 2). This is a statement about assessment that I particularly like.Assessments have long been associated solely with large-scale standardized testing – hence the tension associated with assessment, and the extreme reaction when references are made to continual assessment.
However, if we unpack the concept of assessment in terms of its purpose, I realize that assessment does not really have to be a testy issue after all.”Effective teachers employ formative assessments at the beginning of instruction…they assess regularly throughout the unit or course of study” (McTighe & Ferrara, 1998, p. 6). Indeed assessments can be very powerful pedagogical tools used by effective teachers to facilitate learning.
It is interesting to adopt the perspective of assessments being used for learning. Coffey (2003) speaks of actively engaging students in “assessment-related activities – deliberating about quality work, reflecting on and revising work, completing evaluation sheets and commenting on work done by their peers” (p. 75).
If seen from this perspective, assessment becomes something not to be feared or dreaded, but something to be appreciated as part of the learning process.
2. Forms of assessment
Until recently, the most common and (thought to be) reliable form of assessment that the Singapore school system has been used to is the standardized pen-and-paper test. Only in recent years has the Singapore education system introduced alternative modes of assessment, like project work, and school-based assessment of science practical skills, as components of high-stakes assessments.
As I ponder about the alternative forms of assessment that can be employed, I am particularly appreciative of the various types of assessment presented by McTighe and Ferrara (1998).There is indeed a variety of multiple ways to assess students. The challenge is to choose the most appropriate form of assessment that is aligned to the intended purpose.
For example, to ascertain prior knowledge, a simple and quick “multiple-choice” type assessment would do, whereas a performance-based assessment would be most appropriate to evaluate acquisition of skills and dispositions, in addition to content knowledge.
3. Consequences associated with assessment
This is probably where most of the “testy” issues arise – where there are consequences associated with assessment.As assessments are used in standardized testing approaches, they then are not only limited to classroom assessments, used for assessment of and for learning.
In the context of standardized testing, assessments (and students’ performance in them) are used for sorting, for ranking, and to determine the subsequent educational path of a student.
When seen in this context, assessment then becomes a thorny issue.Issues of stress, of putting students under undue duress, of using a single examination to determine the fate of students are difficult to resolve.
When assessments are used to compare students across different schools and contexts, issues of reliability and validity then come into play, and these then impact the choice of modes of assessment, as certain modes of assessment lend themselves better to standardization.There are more issues than answers here, but in moving forward, teachers need to be aware of the issues at hand.
There is no silver bullet as far as assessment is concerned, and as educators, we need to strike a fine balance. The challenge is to incorporate multiple assessment approaches into the learning process, and to provide so much scaffolding that students do not feel stress or anxiety. After all, how else can we know what students are really learning in the classroom?
Coffey, J. (2003). Involving students in assessment. In J. Atkin & J. Coffey (Eds.), Everyday assessment in the science classroom (pp. 75-87). Arlington, VA: National Science Teachers Association.
McTighe, J., & Ferrara, S. (1998). Assessing learning in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Education Association.
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