15 February 2022

Adopting a new assessment model to bring education back into the 21st century

By Ian Castledine – Head of Proposition for Assessment at RM
Adopting a new assessment model to bring education back into the 21st century

Despite Nadhim Zahawi announcing that A-Level and GCSE exams will go ahead this summer, there’s still no promise that all students can take those exams in person thanks to ongoing COVID-absences.

Student exams have been impacted by COVID-19 for far too long and, as cases skyrocket by around a million a week, further disruptions loom. This in turn points to the need to assess whether the time is now right to consider a new – potentially more robust – exam model that also makes the exam process fair, consistent and accessible for all.

To do so requires a more agile and innovative approach to exams. Switching to digital assessment could alleviate many of the challenges the sector has already identified and help to future-proof high-stakes assessment in the “new normal”.

Broadening the scope of what “good” looks like

In so many ways digital technologies have been the saviour during the pandemic. While many schools looked to technology to facilitate remote learning and virtual lessons over the last two years, they quickly found that as a by-product, technology made lessons more engaging, collaboration more enlightening and communication more efficient. Now that this bridge has been crossed, there are many more opportunities technology can offer students, teachers and parents. And in no area is this truer than in assessment.

Recalling topics learnt in the classroom is only testing what one can remember, rather than skill. This layout alone should not be a way to define intelligence. What’s more, studying and revising for two years places enormous pressure on a student’s mental health with the NSPCC and UK Government having designated web pages to deal with such stresses.

As it stands, we’re still – in a lot of cases – using outdated methods of assessment, such as endless rows of students gathered in a large hall, heads down for multiple hours in silence, with no notes.It does not have to be that way. The purpose of education should be to ensure pupils learn real-world skills to ensure they have a prosperous future.

Take notes from universities

It’s therefore unsurprising that research from Bauhaus Education found that 71% of students in years 10 – 13 feel that the current exam system is outdated and needs to be overhauled. Parents also agree; with 69% believing that the exam system needs to be modernised.

Qualifications should be aligned to the “what happens next” for a student, whether that be a GCSE, A-level, vocational or professional qualification. It needs to make sense and be applicable to the next phase of that student’s journey. Whether you’re an employer, a college admissions officer or for whatever purpose you are using assessment, having an assessment system that gives you a fair and accurate view of what you need to know about a student is so important.

Many university examinations took to open book exams with lockdowns and social distancing rules restricting the traditional exam methods. It meant assessments often took place over a 24 to 48-hour window. These open book exams are far from the traditional approach. Rather than pure memory recall, this format of assessments effectively test students’ problem-solving, creativity, and application of knowledge.

Preparation for the modern job market

It’s about time students were tested in the most authentic way, a way that matches the needs of employers and the job market. For instance, accountancy firms already assess learners in this manner, whereby the focus is on a student’s interpretation and analysis – rather than their ability to memorise facts alone.

After all, you wouldn’t work in an accountancy firm and complete balance sheets by hand. Nor would you work in a brokerage and require to handwrite a policy document as if it were the 70s.

A better approach to the modern job market is of high value to the learner, but it can also offer a world of benefits to teachers. Timing wise, teachers are already under pressure and as Ofsted reported, teachers work 12 hours a week more than the average full-time employee does.

Reducing that time strain is critical to many schools. Thankfully, growing evidence suggests digital assessment can play a key role in reducing elements of this workload.

Time-saving capabilities

Advances in AI can automatically generate questions and tasks that are then, in real time, marked and graded. What that means is responses and feedback is often immediate. While this level of automation is not suitable in all cases and, is not to undermine the teacher stage, it does give teachers back more time to focus on high-quality interventions.

This is all possible from digital assessment’s capacity to provides a wealth of data. This data generates a much greater level of actionable insights for teachers and examination organisations that, in turn, drive improvements to both the learner and assessor.

For instance, digital assessment can easily highlight ‘common misunderstandings’ in subjects, rather than just wrong answers. For teachers this means they’re provided with information on where they need to pay extra attention, ensuring all topic areas are understood. Again, this is often possible in real time, allowing the teacher to make on-the-fly adjustments to their teaching.

This results in a far more personal learning experience for the student – particularly if the additional time that teachers gain from the reduction in marking is reinvested in a targeted intervention. Here, there’s endless opportunity for teachers to build far stronger student-teacher connection. And on an individual basis, this can have a bigger impact on the learner’s engagement with their education and eventual academic outcome.

Not a ‘one size fits all’ approach

That all said, it is important to remember that no solution is one size fits all, and there are different forms of assessment for different subjects, pupils and schools. For example, with subjects that have clearly wrong or right answers like maths, on-screen testing makes it far easier to enable the creation of assessments that accommodate the full range of student abilities.

Then, in more subjective areas like English literature, art and music, there’s a growing trend towards peer-to-peer assessment. Using principles like adaptive comparative judgment can open the door to a greater depth of feedback to students, permitting teachers to use their professional expertise to maximum effect.

What the transition requires

Many schools have looked to technologies to facilitate remote learning and virtual lessons across what’s been more than two years now – and they should be commended for their efforts and persistence. Looking ahead, before schools make their move, they need to be aware of what digital assessment has to offer, and teachers need to be sufficiently trained on how both students and they can benefit.

An appropriate first step to make this transition would be to start by introducing digital assessment for a particular course of study or subject. It’s a way to get teachers on board by being the ‘staff room topic’ of the benefits, whilst not feeling like a total sudden overhaul of the assessment approach.

Scaling up technology with ease to suit a full transition in the future is possible. Similar approaches have worked well for schools before – this was common when it came to introducing new platforms such as Microsoft Teams to deliver hybrid teaching or changing over the school infrastructure to one based in the cloud.

Essentially, there’s been undeniable progress made to introduce technology into schools following the pandemic. Now, equipping teachers and pupils with the means to continue their education in a modern age needs to be the next disruption.

Then, with the right tools in place, teachers can reduce their time spent marking, and developing new materials in order to focus on what they always do best – building meaningful, effective relationships with learners and inspiring a passion for learning.

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