A one-size-fits-all approach to assessment undermines equity and diversity

2 Sep 2022, 10:00

We need assessment settings and systems that give students what they need based on a careful and methodical attention to their circumstances, writes Jeff Greenidge

When students come from various origins, experiences, and perspectives, it is impossible for them to all have the same needs.

Equality has not worked. On the surface it appears to be the right thing to do, but offering everyone the same things results in a standardised and homogenous set of circumstances and resources.

A level playing field has never been and may not be achievable – but we can still have fair play.

I call this equity, rather than equality. Perhaps instead of trying to “even the playing field” or “catch up,” we should try to move to a new playing field, one based on equity and fairness.

So how can we develop assessment systems to achieve this?

How can we improve our assessment practices to better support student growth and make the most of their diverse talents?

We can start by focussing on equity.

This will require us to think differently, and work differently. It requires more thought and effort.

It calls for us to create settings and systems that give students what they need based on careful and methodical attention to the specifics of their circumstance.

Let’s look at the mode of assessment first. If an awarding body was looking to have a complete picture of a student’s achievements at the end of a programme, why wouldn’t they use multiple different ways of assessing that student?

First, we could use continuous assessment measures, done by the teacher face-to-face with the student.

Then we could assess examples of coursework that the student had done on their own. Thirdly we could use evidence from an end-of-year examination. And finally, we could assess the student on a piece of oral work like a viva at university.

With those assessment approaches, you’ve got four ways of really understanding to what extent the student has acquired knowledge and applied that knowledge using various key skills.

Why do we stick to only one mode of assessment for GCSEs – the written exam – when it does not provide a full picture?

Such a varied approach makes even more sense now that students are learning and working in a hybrid fashion. It should not be limited to technical and vocational qualifications like BTECs, Cambridge Technicals and T Levels.

Why do we stick to one mode of assessment – the written exam?

Now let’s look at the content of what’s assessed.

Sometimes we can see representations of different ethnic minorities in exam papers.

But if most of the questions are about content relating to white male scientists and authors and so on, then these pictures of black faces in the exam paper just come across as tokenistic.

Instead, the STEM curriculum itself should include underrepresented and important scientific figures – the African-American female mathematicians, for example, who worked at NASA during the space race (if you’ve never heard of them, watch the 2016 film Hidden Figures).

Or the history curriculum, for instance, which might reveal to students that some Roman emperors were black.

So the exam system should mirror the equitable content being taught – not include tokenistic references to diversity only in the exam paper.

The main message is that we will need to really understand our students and not just be aware of their marks.

If we are to achieve lasting results for all, regardless of their socio-economic, racial, and ethnic backgrounds, we will need to empower students by creating the best possible learning and assessment environment for them.

We need to know: Are our students anxious about assessment? Or do they see it as an opportunity to get a snapshot of where they are and what they need to do next to grow?

Our challenge is to do better in using our assessments to support equity, as opposed to equality or standardisation.

In a crowded curriculum our aim should not be for our students to complete tasks so we can enter grades for them.

We should be looking to develop and maintain a growth mindset in our students.

Consider discussing these questions at your next curriculum and quality meeting.

Try to come to a common understanding around assessment in your organisations – or at least answer them individually, to understand your own beliefs.

You can read more about the future of assessment in our special supplement.

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