To Assess Is One Thing: To Understand Is Quite Another. By Professor Maurice Holt.

Once there was just testing: now assessment dominates. It’s the difference between a quick look at your bank balance, and the detailed calculations demanded by the taxman. And in the data-hungry world created by accountants and economists in the service of the market, the quest for more detail can often mask underlying trends. Each revision of the GCSE requires narrower grading, to make the distinction between different student performances even more precise: yet in France, where an extensive range of post-16 courses is available, a single pass-fail exam suffices and every student is free to continue, since it’s more a test of the curriculum than of students. In England, students must endure an overdose of assessment for no good reason, followed by a scrappy choice of A-levels.

The distinction between testing and assessing is important, since there’s a lot to be said for quick, focused tests to establish which students are struggling. They can be marked by exchanging papers and followed up at once by the teacher. Is this assessment, or evaluation? Neither: it’s a common-sense inquiry to find out who is in difficulties. Taken in conjunction with projects and group work, it meets all everyday needs. If students have to be sorted by alleged ability, that’s a matter for administrators, not for classroom process. If teachers understand their pupils, there is no need for the fragile scientism of assessment. The concept of the market, where everything has a value attached to it, has become so pervasive that a real effort is needed to avoid this kind of reductionism in fields – such as education – where it is unhelpful, if not inappropriate.

In recent years, the notion of “Assessment for Learning” has gained some currency, and it was warmly embraced by the Blair government. I want to argue that though well intentioned, it is an unhelpful extension of an alien concept into the encounter between teacher and student – which is of course at the heart of slow education. The obvious starting point is the 2002 paper by Black and Wiliam, “Inside the black box”, which very properly criticised the use of summative assessment in education, but then argued for a type of class-based formative assessment which, in my view, is equally inappropriate. The difficulty here seems to be how one conceives the encounter between teacher and student in a conversation that is part of a learning experience. For my part, I would follow Michael Oakeshott: “Conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize …It is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.” But to Black and Wiliam, the encounter is a quasi-scientific inquiry: “good teachers constantly assess their pupils’ learning …The rationale for formative assessment is based firmly on our growing understanding of how young people learn … Resourceful, reflective children are more successful in examinations.” I would rather say that good teachers constantly interpret their pupils’ learning: that the encounter is about exchanging ideas rather than assessment; and that reflective children are capable of deeper learning. While respecting the approach of Black and Wiliam, I fear that their thoughtful analysis has been sacrificed at the altar of assessment and exams.

The whole point of the encounter between student and teacher, to supporters of the concept of slow education, is that it provides a unique educational opportunity to promote fruitful conversation and enhance the student’s understanding. In doing so, the student’s misconceptions are as valuable as her unexpected insights. Of course, the teacher would constantly have in mind some view of the student’s capabilities, and of how they change over time: but to link such a valuable form of learning to the pursuit of assessment seems to me a category error that could have serious consequences if applied to the the notion of slow education. To emphasise evaluation and assessment for their own sake is to miss the point. They are of course among the strategies we use to formulate an inquiry, discover an insight, illuminate a concept. But to make them a quasi-scientific element of teaching could lead to premature judgments, missed opportunities. and obstruct the development of slow education.

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