Making sense of assessment and curriculum reform…. in the mess of conflated debates.

There are so many important and interesting debates going on at the moment. What experiences and knowledge should all students encounter in a great curriculum? How far should this be determined centrally or at school level? How do we reward students’ achievements and communicate the standards they have reached – in a range of endeavours that might add up to a holistic education? How are standards agreed on at a local and national level? How should we determine the depth, quality and range of learning in any area and overall? What can be measured? What should be measured? How should we measure those things? Should children leave school with qualifications? What are they for? When should they take them? To what extent do we want our curriculum to be built around these qualifications? How do we give value to areas of learning without qualifications or formal assessment? And how does all this play out in the current short-term context where exam system that has shaped our ideas about these things for many years has been removed abruptly.

So many questions!

Whilst appreciating everyone has good intentions, my concern is that too many issues are being conflated in these debates and it’s important to filter out lines of reasoning so that competing ideas can be evaluated meaningfully.

I think there are three main areas of debate which whilst intersecting are fundamentally different:

  1. The curriculum content. Knowledge, skills and experiences and the extent to which they are mandatory/optional.
  2. The nature of assessment within each specific element of the curriculum – defined widely – embedding notions of standards, judgement, validity.
  3. The role of credentials and qualifications; their function as progression ‘passports’ and records of achievements or standards achieved – embedding the concept of ‘exchange value’.

An analogy might be to imagine a school of children engaged in athletics and gymnastics.

The curriculum debate is about which activities they should do. How many events? Which would be compulsory – and until when? Where do students get to make choices? Is there a core? How much specialisation to we allow and at what point? Are there parameters around the combinations of types of event blending those that focus on speed, strength, throwing, agility, creativity? Is there an explicit ‘character’ curriculum relating to perseverance and determination?

The assessment debate is about the ways in which each activity is assessed. What’s the best way to judge running? (Or do we just run for fun?) What about absolute speed? Distance travelled in a fixed time? Relative position in races or a competitive field? Different distances for different stages? What about gymnastics? What are the criteria used for judging difficulty and quality? What benchmarks exist to moderate standards between judges? What processes are used to compare one performance to another – and to the benchmarks? Do we measure students’ performance on Big Day events or do we aggregate over time, taking account of progress and averaging the ups and downs? Does this have to apply uniformly or do we vary our approach from one discipline to another? And do we attempt to measure character components or simply recognise the inherent character-building aspect of the activities themselves.

The exchange value debate is about what students are awarded to recognise their achievements. Do we set a minimum threshold in high jump or maximum time for the 1500 metres in order to gain a ‘pass’ or ‘distinction’. Do we place runners in rank order and give some grades according to their position? Do we just record all the times, heights, distances and gymnastics scores on a transcript and let people – perhaps at the elite athletics and gymnastics academies? – decide for themselves whether they meet any kind of comparative standard? Do we give points for different components like they do in the decathlon and heptathlon according to some conversion chart, adding up to a grand total? Do some activities carry more weight than others? Do some have zero points value but must be completed in order to gain the overall qualification?

To some extent these issues overlap – some technical aspects of assessment will influence the value given to those components in an overall curriculum with implications for the exchange value. However, it’s important not confuse the issues. For example, if there was a school where too many elements were based on running with competitive timing, the debate about curriculum would be about which types of running to include in balance with other activities; the debate about assessment would be about how to measure standards in running; the exchange debate would be about whether students need a qualification in running, when this should be awarded and which assessments would be used in the awarding process. How we measure freestyle floor events or pommel horse – how we decide on the elements that link to points in the scoring system – is different to deciding whether everyone needs to include pommel horse in their all-round programme. Surely uncontroversially, the decision around the content needs to precede the debate about the mode of assessment.

Arguably, to extend the metaphor, there is a fourth element which is the ‘enacted curriculum’ embracing the idea of pedagogy or coaching; students’ experience of learning each of these disciplines will be yet another variable, linking to the nature of the assessment and the overall contribution made to the total exchange value of the programme as a whole. For sure, if the performance stakes are high, then there will be pressure to squeeze certain elements out – even if they are valued – simply because they are harder to secure measurable outcomes with. (Everyone knows the pole vault is niche! And gymnastics ball and ribbon is way too subjective!) But we have to avoid cutting across the technicalities. We can’t rage against ‘our obsession with measuring distances’ when that is exactly how you decide the high jump and long jump; the mode of assessment is embedded in the discipline. It’s not about ‘trusting the coach’ to tell us how good someone is at the shot-put. We need to know how far they can throw. Similarly – we can’t simply ‘trust the judges’ in gymnastics; we need to talk about exemplars, criteria, comparative judgement and moderation. It’s the system we have to trust, not the people.

You get the point. In reality there will be a thousand different models where the combination of sport elements, modes of assessment and credentials awarded would constitute an excellent education. It doesn’t pay to catastrophise or excessively demonise any particular model, especially if we’re not making specific alternative suggestions:

Let’s do more of these activities than these. Let’s assess more in this way than in that way. Let’s give overall exchange value credit more for those elements and the overall package rather than giving a badge and a grade for each tiny bit.

I’d like to hear more of our debate conducted in that way. The question is how and when it is best to assess each subject on its own merits; which subjects to take and in which combination; and how to wrap this all up into something more meaningful overall. There’s no transformation (such an over-used idea), no revolution, no turning upside down; no scrapping or abandoning; no talk of students being shackled to the treadmill of 19th century educational dogma… it’s just: Here’s a set of alternative ideas for a rebalancing of the elements of curriculum and in changing the focus of some modes of assessment – what do you think? Here’s an idea for combining all those assessment components into something more holistic – can we make this work?

My personal conviction is that Baccalaureate for England is what we need in the country. It’s partly about curriculum; it’s partly about exchange value – but it leaves open the issue of assessment modes to be determined by the specialists in each aspect of that curriculum – a mixture of exams, assignments, logged achievements and extended project work. More on that to come…

One comment

  1. Really like your metaphor link to sports, this makes the whole discussion more readable (with concrete examples) and also more appealing to more people – after all everyone has run in their school sports carnival at some time in their lives!
    I think the most important point about assessment is making sure you understand WHY – so the purpose of the assessment is critical – and equally critical is that you use the evidence from that assessment to improve in some way – to improve how you teach or what you teach? If you have a clear purpose, you know why that assessment is important and if your students don’t do well – then you are motivated to use the results….Maybe it means changing your curriculum or your teaching or your lesson content or sequence or any combination of these… Some within your control as a teacher, and others not? Hope this adds to your points above?

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s