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Assessment Blog

26th August 2021

Why the most authentic assessment is digital

Peter Collison

You wouldn’t work in an accountancy firm and complete balance sheets by hand. Nor would you work in an insurance firm and handwrite a policy document.

So, why do we assess learners that way?

In the working world, skills that truly matter are communication, creativity, problem solving, and so on. Yet when it comes to school examinations, we’re still, in a lot of cases, using outdated methods of assessment.

For years we have been living in a digital-first society, so it’s about time students were tested in the most authentic way, a way that matches the needs of employers and the job market.

This year’s A–Level results – which include record high grades but thankfully very few teacher-assessed grades being overturned – highlighted the importance that assessment outcomes hold for students in England. Exam results also shone a light on the challenges that arise when assessment is felt to be unfair, biased or inconsistent – either across certain schools, certain demographics, or simply entire generations in the education system.

As schools and further education establishments prepare for a new academic year, it’s time to reflect on what we can learn from recent experiences and what needs to change going forward. Meaningful assessment should do three things: engage students, prepare them for the world of work or higher education, and ensure fairness by eliminating bias and inaccuracy.

Engage students

It’s said that we learn more whilst having fun, so who’s to say that assessment has to be dry and serious? As we know, children are often extremely passionate about their latest game or toy, so what’s to say technology can’t provide the same experience in an assessment context, thus engaging students more?

Take some of the emerging trends in formative assessment which use gamification to engage students in their learning. Maths and grammar games used for homework, for example, show that digital assessment can help quickly assess learning and provide useful feedback for teachers but can also be highly engaging for pupils.

Another advantage of digital assessment is the ability to highlight ‘common misunderstandings’ in subjects, rather than just “wrong” answers. Quite often, this can be done in real-time, allowing the teacher to make on-the-fly adjustments to their teaching. For the learner, this results in a far more personal and impactful learning experience – especially when intertwined with the additional time that teachers gain from the reduction in marking.

So again, it provides a much more engaging experience for students as teachers can build stronger connections with individual learners as the approach is much more targeted.

Assessments for the real world

Today, pupils are keen for learning and assessment to match what they’d be doing in the "real" world of work and life. And back to the accountancy example, there is already an accountancy accreditation that is assessing students using exactly the same technology/IT they use in their day jobs – rather than dropping them into the dark ages with a pencil, paper, calculator and three hours on the clock.

This approach is incredibly impactful when we consider today’s job market. We’re increasingly moving towards a "skills society" – but against the backdrop of a skills shortage. What’s more, employers are already seeking more and more talent for the evolving jobs market driven by automation and AI, as well as a drive in new technical jobs, such as coders and developers.

So there is a very strong argument that assessments must reflect this wider range of skills. In fact, we’re running out of time, and potentially down a slippery slope if governments, educational institutions and technology companies don’t act fast.

Luckily, we are already seeing some strong advances in the move to digital assessment. We are seeing great examples of modern assessment design, combined with powerful digital assessment technology that provides an assessment experience that is both “Google proof” whilst focusing on higher order skills like knowledge interpretation and application, communication, problem solving and increasingly testing teamwork and collaboration skills.

You wouldn’t judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree

Yet most importantly, exams must be fair. You may have heard the common expression before that 'The teacher says, "For a fair selection everybody has to take the same exam: please climb that tree." … But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.'

For schools, it’s important to keep in mind that a consistent approach to assessment doesn’t have to mean testing all students in the same way, or even on the same day. It’s a question of equality vs equity, and education systems should carefully consider which methods of assessment – for instance, establishing the right questions, in the best context, delivered in an authentic way – best suit each individual learner.

After all, teachers and school staff have gone to great lengths over the last eighteen months to digitally fast track their lessons and teaching methods; it’s about time assessment undertook a similar makeover. Ultimately, knowing when to assess a student is just as important as knowing how to assess them. Assessment methods should be trusted and reliable and that means establishing the best outcomes from students by giving all learners a fair crack at the whip.

It’s only once the education sector figure out their own unique balance between formative and summative assessments – and avoid being drawn into one camp or another – that attainment gaps will become a thing of the past. All of this can only be achieved if all the stakeholders, from Government down, work towards a common goal of a more authentic and meaningful assessment system.

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