Sunday 11 December 2016

The changing face of how we assess our students

This milestone month, which sees the start of classroom assessment and the launch of a centre for excellence in the area, gives a glimpse of the future, writes our education correspondent

Published 11/05/2016 | 02:30

Sharing feedback: English teacher Siobhan Reynolds with second-year pupils Jack McAvinue, Kharisma Messam, Andrew Wright, Alan Farrell and Claire Dempsey at Stratford College, Rathgar, Dublin.
Sharing feedback: English teacher Siobhan Reynolds with second-year pupils Jack McAvinue, Kharisma Messam, Andrew Wright, Alan Farrell and Claire Dempsey at Stratford College, Rathgar, Dublin.
Prof Michael O'Leary at the CARPE launch.

Whether teachers or parents like it or not, the ways and means by which students in Ireland are assessed are changing. Many will welcome it, while others may prefer the comfort of familiarity.

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It presents a challenge for all involved, requiring a new mindset where assessment is recognised as an integral part of the learning process itself, a tool to promote learning, and not merely an instrument by which to measure progress, or not, at the end of a fixed period.

In education jargon, it means a shift from assessment of learning to assessment for learning, and with it the use of a range of different modes of assessment, including giving students themselves an active role in judging their own progress and that of their classmates, known as peer review.

The new approach is underpinned by a number of principles, starting with actually telling students about what the learning goals are. It also involves providing constructive feedback, in real time, so allowing the student to understand where they are positioned and then guiding and supporting the individual to an optimum conclusion.

In this, a milestone month for Irish education, two separate but ultimately interlinked developments provide a glimpse of what lies ahead.

The future arrived in many schools with the first of the new junior cycle classroom-based assessments, in this case a three-minute oral presentation by students of English on a topic of their choice. The idea behind this task is to put students through their paces in skills such as independent research, presentation and communication.

Resistance by one teachers' union, the ASTI, to the junior-cycle reforms has created a patchwork in the introduction of such changes, but, however that dispute is resolved, there is no turning back. The phasing-in of changes continues in September, with new approaches to teaching, learning and assessment in science and business studies, alongside English

A quieter, but no less momentous birth, was the launch of the Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice in Education (CARPE for short) at Dublin City University (DCU). It is located in the new DCU Institute of Education, which has been created by the coming together of St Patrick's College of Education, Mater Dei Institute of Education and the Church of Ireland College of Education with DCU.

The work of CARPE will be led by the recently appointed Prometric Chair of Assessment, Professor Michael O'Leary, St Patrick's College, Drumcondra, an internationally-recognised expert in the field.

For the first time, Ireland will have its own centre of expertise in this area, offering an important voice in terms of what works and what doesn't, so helping to inform and guide future policy.

The assessment debate is not peculiar to Ireland. It is going on around the world because, according to Prof O'Leary, "assessment policy and practice impacts profoundly on people's life chances".

He says it matters, too, because it exerts a powerful influence on what happens in schools, universities and other learning environments.

He cites the epithet "what you assess is what you get". In other words and in one example, in a system that relies on a student's ability to memorise and regurgitate reams of material, you reward those with good power of recall, whether they understand it all or not.

Prof O'Leary says that the impact of assessment on teaching and learning has not always been positive and that the concept of embracing new approaches to assessment has been gathering pace, worldwide, for the past 15 to 20 years.

Indeed, in Ireland, much of the motivation behind changes at junior cycle was to get away from a single set of exams at the end of three years, which is seen to encourage "teaching to the test" to the detriment of broader education, and to reward rote learning.

Prof O'Leary says the world of assessment in the guise of summative paper-and-pencil tests, while still relevant, is being revolutionised by new concepts of assessment and by the use of digital technology.

"The idea that assessment is as important a part of the learning process as it is to the final outcomes is something that has really come on board in terms of thinking," he says.

"What we are trying to do is to create assessments that not only allow people to get a sense of what people know or can do, but actually to help the process of learning."

He says it is about finding a balance. While embracing new approaches, Prof O'Leary does not dismiss tradition and is not for throwing out modes of assessment that are part of the Irish education history and culture.

But he says it is also true that a lot of what is now valued in terms of what young people need cannot be assessed in the traditional way.

"If you value skills such as collaboration, the ability to work with others, if you value skills around critical thinking, if you value skills around self-regulation, the ability to control your own learning, you cannot assess that in a summative, final exam."

While such skills were once required of a chosen few, they are now at the heart of modern life and work for so many of this generation, he says.

In this redrawn assessment landscape, it is not only the teacher who does the assessing.

While the teacher's role continues, according to Prof O'Leary "the learner also has to be involved in doing assessments because if you believe that lifelong learning is an important thing to be able to do, then you have to be able to monitor your own assessment, so you have to teach people how to self-assess."

While changes at second-level are the current talking point in Ireland, Prof O'Leary says the centre is being established to enhance the practice of assessment across all levels of the education system, from early childhood to fourth-level and beyond to the professions, from job entry to career advancements.

Prometric, the US-based testing company with 180 employees in Ireland, contributed nearly €1m to support CARPE . In terms of CARPE, he says it will be a neutral space "where ideas are presented, listened to respectfully and challenged. We want to really interrogate the assessment space because it hasn't happened in Ireland".

CARPE is drawing on five leading international names in the field of assessment to sit on its advisory board: Professor Jo-Anne Baird, University of Oxford; Professor Janette Elwood, Queen's University, Belfast; Professor John Gardner, University of Stirling and University of Oxford; Professor Patrick Griffin, University of Melbourne and Professor Larry Ludlow, Boston College, USA.

The pupils who review each other

The pupils of Stratford College, Rathgar, Dublin (pictured), are well-used to reviewing each other's work.

The school has embraced peer assessment, a collaborative learning approach that involves students offering feedback on how well a classmate, or classmates, have met a set of criteria for a particular task.

Principal Patricia Gordon says they started it three to four years ago and, while it takes a while to bed it down, it is now an ongoing part of school life. More recently, and through its partnership with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA), Stratford has been involved in an EU-wide project, known as CO-LAB, that is taking peer review into the digital space and supporting students in the development of e-portfolios - another part of the future of Irish education - where students will document their learning.

Irish Independent

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