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Assessment dilemmas in educational institutions

  • Published at 10:53 pm July 25th, 2019
Not the best way to judge skills or calibre
Not the best way to judge skills or calibre / BIGSTOCK

There’s more than one way to measure a student’s progress

A faculty member of the Institute of Education and Research of the University of Dhaka expressed his dilemma about educational assessment while sharing his experience: “I have literacy of appropriate assessment but am unable to practice, since I am restrained by institutional constraints.” 

This kind of assessment dilemma is persistent in the educational institutions in Bangladesh and beyond. Students, the consumers, or (probably a modest term) “users” of assessment also experience various types of dilemma after receiving the assessment results from the educational boards or from the instructors. 

Suspicion about the assessor’s ability to appropriately judge the quality of students’ performance is randomly discussed among students and among instructors too. Assessment, despite being central to shaping students’ learning, receives little attention when educational reforms are initiated. 

The issues such as what assessment actually is, qualities of educational assessment, its influence on learning, traditional vs alternative assessment, what assessment literacy means, deserve to be addressed appropriately by the stakeholders concerned.   

What assessment is

Educators and others invariably have confusing ideas about the basic differences among the terms such as measurement, test, assessment, and evaluation. However, understanding the differences between measurement, test, assessment, and evaluation is fundamental to the knowledge base of professional teachers, students, parents, and policy-makers. Understating the purposes, properties, and methods of application of the aforementioned terms is essential for the effective implementation of the core components of the curricula.

Let me begin by distinguishing terms such as measurement, test, assessment, and evaluation. Measurement as an educational construct refers to gauging the volume of students’ learning by employing tools that are quantitative in operation while a test is more general, and involves both quantitative and qualitative methods to report students’ achievement in academic courses, or programs. 

In fact, it refers to tools that fathom students’ ability to complete certain tasks with the application of skill or knowledge of curriculum content. A test is often regarded as a special form of assessment which is made under contrived circumstances. 

However, assessment has the broadest goal which aims at tracking students’ progress in learning through the provision of feedback, and subsequently, based on the feedback, assessment procedures facilitate constructive interactions between students and instructors as well as among students. 

Such interactions engage students to be informed about their strengths and weaknesses and also help them adopt appropriate learning strategies, or adapt the existing ones. Finally, evaluation refers to a process that we go through to form value judgments, and to make decisions about instructions, teaching/learning materials, or textbooks, and ultimately, about the relevant course or program.    

A host of other terms and phrases are also significant, and necessitate discussion. Differences between summative and formative assessment will now be discussed. Summative assessment is a process that aims at encapsulating all performance data up to a certain point to determine students’ achievement in an academic course or subject while formative assessment refers to the process that integrates feedback as a device to foster students’ learning. 

It is continuous, and there is no finality for making judgment. Summative assessment measures volume of learning, but formative assessment facilitates learning. Although formative assessment is widely advocated, many educational institutions have been stuck in the quagmire of summative assessment. Education in Bangladesh is suffering terribly since the age-old summative assessment is still a convenient choice to the educators. 

A few more phrases are in vogue in contemporary assessment literature. They incorporate assessment for learning (AfL), assessment as learning (AaL), and assessment of learning (AoL). These notions are more closely associated with classroom assessment, a concept getting currency as classroom is the most significant venue for successful learning when formal education is concerned. 

During most of the 20th century, assessment was regarded as an index of learning. However, assessment is now addressing societal expectations for inclusion in its methodologies. Moreover, development in cognitive science is providing new insights into the theories of learning. 

Therefore, contextual realities of the classroom are becoming significant considerations. The assessment constructs AfL, and AaL are consistent with these psycho-social realities. AfL is essentially formative in nature and is designed to inform teachers about the success and failure of instruction. 

It also addresses the idiosyncratic patterns of learning by individual students. On the contrary, AaL refers to the process of the growth of learners’ metacognition, ie, it engages the learners in the critical connection of assessment and learning. It fosters self-learning since, having received feedback, the learners relate it to their existing knowledge, make adjustments and adaptations, and monitor their learning progress. 

AoL determines if the learners have achieved curriculum outcomes, and therefore, it is summative in operation. Dilemmas persist since instructors invariably struggle to distinguish them, and eventually they adopt AoL. As a result, assessment as a process to shape learning collapses.        

How it kills or enkindles learning

Assessment has obvious effects on students’ learning, and life in general. According to assessment expert Rowntree, assessment may influence learners in eights ways. They include prejudices regarding assessment, students’ assessment literacy, extrinsic motivation generated by assessment, assessment towards competition, bureaucratic dimension of assessment, inherent features of assessment, rewarding grades, and reporting the assessment performance. 

First of all, when the instructors or the professional assessors make the value judgment of a student’s performance in the assessment task, they are often influenced by their epistemological beliefs which may not be aligned with what they are assessing, or why they are assessing the students. As a result, the students get victimized by this kind of assessment. 

Moreover, students should be made conscious and literate about the assessment methods that the instructors, or the institutions, are going to apply. Absence of such practice causes a lack of engagement amongst students in learning through assessment. 

Furthermore, if the assessment reports go in favour of the students, assessment turns into an instrument to motivate the learners towards the enhancement of learning. Assessment also raises competitiveness among students which is both good and bad. 

Good because some students develop the spirit of winning whereas it also destroys the morale of those who lose the battle. This loss in the assessment battle causes anxiety and stress among students which are harmful for their psychological health. Many of them suffer from low self-esteem and decide to drop out.       

Traditional vs alternative assessment

A common picture in traditional assessment is that a student in the examination hall or in the classroom on the quiz date is shuffling paper, responding to the MCQ or short answer questions, or writing essays. Writing modality seems to be the only means by which students can demonstrate their knowledge or understanding. 

Students desperately search their memory to find accurate answers to the questions, or appropriate formulae to solve problems. These assessment procedures aim at examining skills such as literacy and numeracy -- the skills of storing information in memory, and retrieving them when required. A literacy and numeracy-oriented assessment approach often fails to integrate human attributes (values, attitudes, assumptions, morality) of the learners.    

However, during the last few decades, the inadequacies and the ineffectiveness of the traditional exams and mainstream assessment practices, dominated by high-stake testing, and other forms of summative assessment, have widely being criticized. The fundamental arguments are based on the assumptions that these assessment procedures do not facilitate sustainable knowledge, critical thinking, and life-long and deep learning. 

This has caused a paradigm shift from a conservative testing culture to contextual, learning-oriented assessments. The former stressed the use of a single total score assessment for grading or ranking purposes whereas the latter focuses on the multi-dimensional descriptive profiles of the learners. 

These multi-dimensional assessment procedures are now described as alternative assessment, or innovative assessment, or authentic assessment. There are various methods of alternative assessment. Assessment researchers have identified observation checklists, anecdotal notes, reflective journals, group projects, portfolios, essay and interpretive exercises, open-ended tasks, concept maps, performance-based tasks, demonstrations, and oral questioning as the most popular ones. 

Experts critique that exclusive dependence on paper and pencil testing sounds impractical since it neglects learners’ autonomy in assessment as well as learners with special needs. It is time we deeply reflected on democratizing assessment so that we can accommodate learners’ preferences for the modalities they find appropriate and convenient to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, and judgment. 

It is also time we thought to liberate assessment from the centralized system to the classroom-based formative assessment since classroom plays the most central role in facilitating learning when formal education is concerned. We will be able to entail the underlying competencies of the learners in the classroom assessment scheme while the traditional assessment focuses only on the outcomes of these competencies.   

Assessment literacy

Assessment literacy is gaining recognition as an inherent element of teacher professionalism. While describing assessment competencies, American Federation of Teachers used the term “assessment literacy” and according to them, assessment competencies include selecting assessment methods, developing assessment procedures, designing valid student grading systems, communicating assessment results, and recognizing unethical, illegal, and inappropriate methods of assessment. 

Broadly, it refers to the teachers’ knowledge and understanding of assessment methods that are appropriate to enhance students’ learning. Without such literacy, the assessment procedures designed by the instructor may appear to be the reason of silent killing of students’ learning. 

Such literacy equips the teachers with a toolbox which helps them monitor, record, and report on student learning. In addition to the knowledge on various methods of assessment and their successful implementation in the classroom, the instructors must also understand validity and reliability, the fundamental qualities of good assessment. 

Validity is the assessment tasks which measure what they are supposed to measure. It is the appropriateness of the assessment tasks which should be aligned with the course goals and objectives. For example, an instructor should only assess students’ reading comprehension ability and nothing else by an assessment task which is set to measure their ability of reading comprehension. 

Reliability, on the other hand, means the consistency in the test-taker’s score. Teachers very often start assessing by an assessment task what they are not supposed to assess. This action of the teachers turns the assessment unfair, but fairness is definitely an important characteristic of a good assessment.     

Assessing the sociocultural aspects 

Work such as The Other Side of the Report Card: Assessing Students′ Social, Emotional, and Character Development by Elias and others, and concept such as non-measurement by Millar and others involve other dimensions of students’ holistic development necessary to survive well in the 21st century. 

Such dimensions entail soft skills and emotional intelligence which are often neglected since assessment initiatives exclusively and rigidly focus on the curriculum goals and objectives at the cost of the whole-learner development. However, soft skills and emotional intelligence are embedded into the 21st century curricula. 

Therefore, any assessment methodology must encourage the policy-makers to design assessment tasks that integrate these skills. In this connection, we may critique that outcome-based curriculum might be implemented up to a certain level of education where reinforcing specific types of knowledge, or skills is essential, but such curriculum at the tertiary level may not be appropriate since it limits many possibilities of the university students. University is fundamentally a place of knowledge creation through research, not the place to only receive knowledge transmitted by teachers.  

It may not be inaccurate to say that the approaches and practices of traditional assessment promote plagiarism since the assessment tasks are invariably designed from the resources that represent the curriculum. As a result of this trend, we often find that some people manipulate this trend by leaking questions. 

Since we have miserably failed to impart the true value of education among students and parents, obtaining good grades by any means become their priority and to fulfill this dream they become desperate to get hold of the questions, and thus the recurrence of the question leakage. To reverse this malpractice, designing formative authentic assessment tasks is crucial.  

Mohammad Shaiful Islam is a faculty member of the English Department, Independent University, Bangladesh.