We must embrace an assessment system that goes beyond grades

Our new report reveals the NCFE’s Assessment Innovation Fund is helping to create a strong evidence base for much-needed change

Our new report reveals the NCFE’s Assessment Innovation Fund is helping to create a strong evidence base for much-needed change

21 Apr 2024, 5:00

There’s a growing consensus within education that the current assessment system is not adequately addressing the needs or recognising the skills of diverse learners.

Our recent research with TeacherTapp asked more than 7,500 teachers if they felt GCSEs are suitable for every pupil. Only 7 per cent said that they do, and 81 per cent disagreed.

Assessment methods often focus on recall of knowledge that may advantage some but may be to the detriment of others, particularly those with additional learning needs, those from under-served backgrounds and those from ethnic minorities.  

According to Rethinking Assessment, the list of pupil groups who are disadvantaged by high-stress exams includes those with dyslexia, young people with poor mental health, those with English as an additional language, those from economically challenged and minority-ethnic backgrounds, autistic learners, and anyone who lacks the financial means to benefit from personal tutoring.

The upshot is clear: We need to rethink the purpose of assessment. It should be used for more than just generating a final grade. And it can and must be used to help develop skills, moving us beyond a largely high-stakes assessment system to an environment where formative assessment is embedded throughout the learning journey.

But how? Answering this question is why, back in 2021, we committed £1 million and created NCFE’s Assessment Innovation Fund (AIF). Its aim is to support the development of new ideas and methods for assessing learners at different ages and levels, and to help fill an evidence gap in the sector.

Over the past two years, this fund has supported 12 projects, with 3,289 learners now having participated in those pilots. In total, 206 educators across two continents and 49 institutions have been involved in AIF-funded studies.

One of the very first AIF pilots saw The Sheffield College using virtual reality (VR) in summative and formative assessment. The pilot’s aim was to explore how VR can be embedded in assessment to improve the learning experience and learners’ outcomes.

The landscape is disconnected, resulting in an assessment arms race

Using the funding to purchase VR headsets and build virtual assessment experiences in animal care, catering and construction, the pilot explored the possibilities of allowing learners to develop their skills outside of the need to always be in a practical setting.

Since the publication of the two-year impact report, the AIF is continuing to go from strength to strength thanks to our partnership with UFI VocTech Trust. Our aim was always to influence the debate on assessment innovation and lead digital disruption in the education sector – something we’re continuing to do through further grant funding, an innovation competition and investigating the impact of digital credentials.

We are committed to making all findings from the AIF pilots free and accessible to everyone, to ensure innovation in assessment methodologies continue to recognise the skills of the learners, are personalised to individual needs and place learning in context. You can find all the AIF final reports on our website.

While the mindset is changing, thanks in part to the impact of the Covid pandemic, the introduction of new assessment and feedback methods remains slow.

It is true that we must be certain that any adaptations deliver tangible benefits for all, that they retain appropriate rigour and consider any financial and practical implications. There are also concerns about innovation allowing more opportunity for academic manipulation.

This has led to a landscape that’s siloed and disconnected, with innovation on smaller levels and access to new technologies resulting in an assessment arms race. Technology is clearly pivotal but, as we saw during the pandemic, it doesn’t automatically bring equality and can even reinforce previous inequalities or create new ones.

There’s a need for rigorous, funded investigations into a range of innovative assessment methods that bring clarity to the sector. If we can fill the evidence gap through research, collaboration and investment, we can move the sector closer towards consensus on what form assessment innovation takes.

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