Back to normal? Is that where we need to be?

Written by: Helen Osgood | Published:
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We all want to get back to normal – but is it still appropriate in the ‘new normal’ of the 21st century to be using 19th century assessment methods? Helen Osgood pleads for change


“I’ve had enough of unprecedented, I’m ready to get back to normal” – a sound sentiment perhaps after the past two years, but do we want to be “getting back to normal”? Are we in danger of missing an opportunity?

In the coming weeks, primary school children will begin taking a barrage of national assessments – SATs, the phonics screening check, and the brand-new multiplication tables check.

Meanwhile, over in key stage 4 and post-16, entry-level certificates, GCSEs, A levels and a whole range of vocational, end-of-course assessments will be underway to mark the learning that has occurred over the past few years.

For some children, these will be the first formal exams and assessments they have ever taken. The government is keen to claim that “exams and other formal assessments are the best and fairest means of assessment” (DfE, 2022), but are they?

There has been wide variation in education experience throughout the pandemic. School staff have been challenged to deliver work in new ways across new media with unreliable internet connectivity, which has caused inequal access to learning.

Some children do not even have internet connectivity or computer access at home. So, before they have even sat at that exam desk, already some children will be disadvantaged. So how, exactly, is this fair?

Academic progress will never be a straightforward thing to measure, which is why a straightforward exam will fail to capture the full range of knowledge of every student, but is it the best we can do?

Is it still appropriate, in the “new normal” of the 21st century, to be using 19th century assessment methods? And how often do we shut ourselves off from resources such as calculators, dictionaries and the internet to produce our best work?

“Catastrophe can be a catalyst for positive change.” (Anderson et al, 2021). We have seen this clearly in the work to develop the Covid vaccine. What about the positive change in assessment? School staff have learnt how to prepare work as assessment. They have interpreted exam board frameworks and exemplars to mark and gather work as evidence to back up their grades, hugely upskilling the workforce for the better. And the teacher-assessed grades of the past two years have shown us clearly that when students have the opportunity to prepare their work and to be assessed over time, they can outperform all expectations.

Remote learning, the use of live streaming of lessons and video resources were all pipe dreams just a few years ago, and although there have been significant difficulties that lockdown learning has caused, there is much that can continue to be of use.

Recorded teacher inputs can help pupils who learn at different rates to revisit instruction as many times as they need. And online assessment that increases in difficulty and provides the teachers with live feedback is helping to reduce the marking workload.

And yet now it would seem that these efforts are being denigrated and pushed aside. Innovation and experimentation are being stripped away as teachers focus once more on preparing for Ofsted, exams and standardised assessments – no coursework or teacher assessment.

Where was the “evolution of assessment proposal in the White Paper to seize the moment and create a more useful accountability system through intelligent assessment?” (Severs, 2022)

There are sparks of revolution from the exam boards. This year, thousands of students will be trialling online tests in GCSE English, maths and science held by AQA (2022). Chief executive Colin Hughes said that digital assessment can “help better prepare students for future learning and work settings”, and “deliver a more personalised experience”.

But this is one relatively small trial – what about all the other assessments? Let’s not forget that our high-stakes system is not really about the children – it’s about gathering data for government to hold schools to account. SATs are simply not designed to report on the whole curriculum and, like all exams, only capture a narrow snapshot of attainment on that day. But is there another way?

According to Jon Severs (2022), the absence of the usual national tests during the pandemic led to wide use of self-administered diagnostic assessments and these “became a key tool for the government to benchmark the need for catch-up”, but this was “a secondary factor to their being useful for schools and pupils”.

There are solutions out there that can benefit staff and student alike. We can embrace the new and not return unquestioningly to stale normality. We can reinvigorate learning and continue to embrace the digital communications that have been our lifeline for the past two years. It is not too late, but we must act now.

  • Helen Osgood is the national officer for education and early years with Community trade union. Visit https://community-tu.org/


Further information & resources

  • Anderson, Rainie & Vogels: Experts say the ‘new normal’ in 2025 will be far more tech-driven, presenting more big challenges, Pew Research Centre, February 2021: https://pewrsr.ch/3LoNTb9
  • AQA: AQA to launch major on-screen assessment pilot, January 2022: https://bit.ly/3vJlXIF
  • DfE: Consultation outcome: Proposed changes to the assessment of GCSEs, AS and A levels in 2022, July 2021: https://bit.ly/3AggCsg
  • Severs: When the Sats float, effective assessment sinks, Tes, April 2022: https://bit.ly/38sVgA3


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