I’ve had no end of arguments about assessment with colleagues in the past and that is in part because we are often talking at cross purposes.
Firstly, I think it is important that we understand the purpose of assessment and this is where we enter the minefield…
The simplest reason for applying assessment is to ration success. The national examination system in most countries is premised around the idea that the ‘rigour’ of our education system is built into the ability to tell significant numbers of young people at the end of their statutory education that they are deemed failures. If you are content that this is a legitimate purpose of the education system then a simple summative assessment method, like a terminal examination, is perfectly appropriate. The purpose of applying the assessment is simple – as a quality control mechanism to stamp the passes from the failures. The focus of such a system is the mastery of knowledge, or selected information.
If you see the purpose of education to be more developmental, a process by which a student develops competence over time then you will look towards a more formative method of assessment. Formative methods of assessment will involve such methods as examinations combined with continuous assessment and project based learning which requires the student to think beyond the individual subject and marshal learning ideas from across the curriculum. Formative assessment might include multiple opportunities to post a pass mark performance, as reaching the standard is more important than reaching the standard in a single examination. This is of course anathema to those who look exclusively to summative assessment.
In the UK, the return to end of year examinations as the almost exclusive assessment method, demonstrates how rooted in the ‘traditional’ function of education the coalition government is grounded. Their focus on ‘traditional and tested’ assessment methodologies harks back to preparing the academic high fliers to enter the economy of the 1950s!
Those nations at the top of the international educational performance tables, and Finland in particular, look to a wider purpose for their education systems, which is to equip their young people to function as autonomous and automatic learners who can bring knowledge, appropriate behaviours and expertise to whatever issues they are confronted with in their lifetime. The methodology through which this is developed involves continuous assessment, practical challenges to project manage from identification of a problem to devising and applying appropriate and effective solutions to a given issue. The assessment protocols applied to this type of learning are defined as ‘ipsative’ whereby the challenge for the student is to constantly review their previous performance and look to improve on it (not unlike a track and field athlete continuously looking to improve on their personal best performance, which will usually involve a coaching model).
Another way to explore summative, formative and ipsative assessment procedures is to think of where the power lies in the assessment relationship. In summative assessment the student is competing against an externally imposed standard – a mark scheme. In formative assessment the student is working with the teacher in dialogue to improve performance. In ipsative assessment the focus is on the student taking responsibility to be the internal verifier of their performance and to be intimately involved in internalising the assessment criteria by which their performance will be judged.
This article in The Guardian explores some of the implications of the current trends in assessment in the UK: The idea you can put a number against a child’s ability is flawed and dangerous | The Guardian