Another dot in the blogosphere?

Leveraging on assessment for systemic change?

Posted on: October 30, 2014

This reflection is a response to a slow chat question on #asiaED about the role of assessment in systematic change.

The question was:

My response was:

The layperson’s likely view of assessement is summative tests and exams, typically of the high stakes variety, because that is what they have experienced. As its name implies, summative assessment is perceived and practiced as a terminal or downstream activity.

Informed educators might point out that formative assessment (on-going feedback) is more important for learning. Educated instructional designers will tell you that assessment or evalutation should be developed before content. Wise educational consultants and leaders will tell you that assessment is a key leverage point in systemic change.

Assessment is actually an upstream component. Change that and you affect processes downstream like teaching, learning support, learning environment design, and policy making.

Imagine for a moment that exams were removed and replaced with learner portfolios. Now imagine how teaching, teacher expectations, teaching philosophies, teacher professional development, and teacher evaluation might change.

I would like to answer a question directed at me:

I cannot say for sure how assessment should change and I do not think that data collected from such assessment only serve as leverage.

Consider an example of a change-in-progress and my suggestions on how to implement change and avoid pitfalls in the process.

There are at least two significant assessment-related changes in Singapore now. One is an emphasis on values-based education (instead of focusing on just grades) and the other is evaluating of the importance of a degree.

Added after initial posting, a timely tweet from a local rag:

These changes were a result of:

  • parental feedback on the unnecessary stress of high stakes testing (particularly of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE)
  • the recognition of grade inflation (particularly at the GCE A Levels)
  • the mismatch between what employers need and what universities produce
  • new and visionary leadership at the Ministry of Education (MOE), Singapore

All these placed pressures on what we understand and value as traditional, summative assessment.

That said, MOE is not going to sacrifice the sacred cows of tests and exams. But it has started emphasizing other processes and measures.

Values-based lessons are being integrated into previously content-only lessons [news article after its announcement in 2011]. Primary school students can get into Secondary schools of their choice based on non-academic talents with the Direct School Admissions (DSA) scheme.

Experts of systemic change might label these efforts as piecemeal change. They do not profoundly disrupt existing processes and are instead implemented in periodically and strategically in an attempt to create overall change.

However, critical observers might also note that significant and sustained change tends to happen with disruptive interventions. Examples might include:

  • the impact of antibiotics and anaesthesia on medical practice
  • the effect of the printing press on schooling and the spread of information
  • the influence of smartphones on banking, commerce, education, entertainment and gaming, information consumption, content creation, and socialization.

I predict that e-portfolios will rise in importance as a means of recording and evaluating (not just assessing) both the processes and products of learning.

e-Portfolios are a systemic and disruptive change in that they:

  • start and end with the learner
  • belong to the learner
  • emphasize processes and not just products of learning
  • showcase holistic or other attributes (not just academic ability)
  • promote lifelong, career wide learning

The battle to create acceptance, buy-in, and hopefully ownership of what we now label as alternative assessment will probably last a decade or more. During this time, it might be tempting to try to collect evidence during a trial or a full blown implementation of the effectiveness of e-portfolios to convince stakeholders that the change is making a difference.

However, this is not a wise move. Efforts to do this would repeat the mistakes of the slew of early educational and action research comparing the effects of intervention A (for example, traditional instruction) and intervention B (technology-assisted instruction). There are far too many factors that influence learning outcomes, attitudes, values, etc.

If data on newer forms of assessment need to be collected, analyzed, and presented, I suggest that they be part of a much larger plan. Such a plan could include:

  • having regular conversations with stakeholders
  • creating a shared vision among stakeholders
  • relating success stories to create buy-in
  • developing informed, forward-thinking, and informal leadership
  • providing financial and implementation leeway for unforeseen obstacles

In summary, assessment is an important leverage point and an upstream component for changing educational systems. Data on disruptive changes like the adoption of e-portfolios for assessment and evaluation can be leveraged on to convince stakeholders. However, such data should only be part of a larger and sustainable plan.

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