With the backdrop of the arguments about primary SATs there is currently much lively discussion in the Twittersphere. One such conversation was initiated by a blog published by Daisy Christodoulou which argued that testing is more reliable and valid and less biased than teacher assessment.
In the same way as the knowledge versus skills debate has often led to an unhelpfully polarised either/or discourse when it is plainly obvious that both are important elements of any curriculum there is a real risk of a similarly polarised discussion about teacher assessment versus testing. It would be as ridiculous to suggest that there was no place for examinations as it is to suggest that there is no place for teacher assessment.
Many moons ago I completed a PGCE at Southampton University. In stark contrast to what is often said about this approach to initial teacher education my course included an intensive period of training and drilling in the methodology of teaching and assessing my subject which was then applied (and rigorously assessed) in the classroom.
Although at the end of a one year course we were by no means experts in what I have always thought is probably the highest order set of professional skills and knowledge for teachers, we did have a basic grounding and were in a strong position to continue our education in this field as I did post qualification.
So what were we taught?
First, that assessment follows but does not drive the curriculum. It is there to inform us whether young people have achieved the learning outcomes we sought to teach.
Second, we learnt about the various techniques of assessment. We explored a wide range of strategies ranging from straight recall of memorised knowledge (very important in modern languages – how else do you master vocabulary or adjective endings?), to different types of closed/ open and multiple choice questions, cloze exercises, information gap tasks and of course summative or synoptic tests. We also discussed the advantages and shortcomings of all of these and practised designing them.
Third, we learnt that formative, summative and diagnostic assessment is an integral part of curriculum planning.
We were left with the strong message that we had just embarked on what needed much more study and practice as we began our careers as qualified teachers.
I believe that 2 things need to happen if we are to avoid a polarised debate:
All teachers must be educated in these professional matters at the beginning of their careers. I still come across too many cases where unqualified teachers who may well have a first class knowledge of their subject discipline are dropped into the classroom with this. We need a national curriculum for ITE which is covered whatever route is followed. Teachers need access to academic research and further study on assessment.
The purposes of assessment need to be clear and focused. The job of teachers is about enabling every student to achieve the best possible learning outcomes. Accountability measures are there to assess the extent to which that has happened at the end of the learning process not to drive the content of a curriculum plan. At present high stakes accountability has perverted and distorted their purpose and value.
The teaching profession must be empowered to take back control of this professional work and the government needs to back off. The schools Minister’s recent speech to a ‘curriculum summit’ organised by ASCL was entitled ‘the importance of the curriculum’ yet it homed in on testing and examinations from the second paragraph onwards and focused almost entirely on academic learning. If examination specifications are the basis of the curriculum plan and the only means of assessment it will be incredibly narrow.
This is a vitally important debate. Rather than polarising it into yet another set of either-or confrontation between those labelled as progressives or traditionalists our profession needs a mature discussion. If there ever was a case for a professional body to encourage such discourse it is about this subject.