Rhetoric or reality in assessment change?

A good example of both the rhetorical commitment to the creation of a ‘learning society’ but the failure to tackle in a fundamental way the changes needed to make it a reality either in higher education or more generally, is the recently relaunched UK National Record of Achievement, to be known as ‘Progress File’. This is intended to be a tool for everyone, to help them:

plan, manage and enhance their own learning throughout their lives and thus to improve and use their skills to their full potential.

(p. 8)

The concept is a visionary one. It makes explicit the commitment to a ‘Learning Society’. It represents a future in which all individuals of whatever age will be able and willing to set targets for themselves and to plan their personal development. They will be able to record and review their achievements both for their own learning needs and as information to present to potential employers. They will reflect on their developing ‘key skills’: the application of number, communication, information technology, improving own learning and performance and working with others; recording, reviewing and setting targets.s

Many people are increasingly likely to live so-called ‘portfolio lives’, constantly needing to update their skills and knowledge in order to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. Their skills need to be transferable.

The concept of‘qualifying’ is changing too. In place of a one-off preparation for employment, which many expected to last a lifetime, we need to encourage the idea of continuous qualifying, a more flexible approach in which continuing, rather than completing, our learning becomes the norm. This changing world will thus place much greater emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for reflecting on what they have already experienced, setting future learning goals and preparing plans for how these will be achieved in order to improve their contribution and their employability.

(National Record of Achievement Review, Report of the Steering Group, 1997, paras 1.8-1.10)

The aspiration expressed is that the application of these skills in the context of Progress File will help people to: plan and manage their own learning, develop learning skills, improve their confidence, self-esteem and ability to present themselves effectively and to make informed decisions about their careers.

However there are good reasons to query whether this vision will be fulfilled. Not only is the initiative not supported by a substantial financial investment (unlike recent ‘categoric’ assessment initiatives), its success arguably depends on the creation of a radical change in the values, power and understandings that inform the currently dominant assessment paradigm and the fundamental reconceptualisation of teaching and learning at all levels that it implies.

There is a temptation to regard the hurdles to the successful implementation of new teaching, and assessment approaches as essentially practical ones. In the Review document that launches ‘Progress File’ (DfEE, 1997) the main challenges to its success are identified as convincing people to use it; winning the support of employers; developing attractive and practical documentation and ready access to it through the use of appropriate information technology strategies; providing effective support through training the trainers and through the provision of appropriate funding, inspection and quality assurance arrangements.

These factors are undoubtedly important in highlighting the scale of the changes in thinking and practice that will be needed if students, in particular, are to accept the validity of quite different uses for assessment than those with which they are all too familiar; to see assessment as first and foremost an empowering force for learning.

However, evidence from another initiative - this time from an ongoing study of the introduction of self-assessment in a range of higher education institutions (the Self Assessment in Professional Higher Education Project [SAPHE], 1997) is documenting just how difficult it is to change the attitudes of students and tutors in the context of institutional cultures which are still overwhelmingly operating with more traditional ‘categoric’ conceptions of what assessment is for and how it should be conducted.

The research suggests that both staff and students currently lack the skills to make effective use of opportunities that may be provided in the timetable for reviewing progress on a one-to-one basis, and target-setting. That it is not yet clear what kind of documentation is most helpful in supporting students in this process. Given that the practice of self-assessment is an unfamiliar one, should it be introduced in any particular context on a voluntary, rather than a compulsory basis and, if so, should this be for both students and tutors? What is the best vehicle for introducing this kind of novel approach to assessment? Should it be as part of the curriculum itself in relation to course-work or more synoptically, as part of a system of personal tutoring and progress monitoring?

But, whilst these practical questions are undoubtedly important, it is clear from both this project and previous similar initiatives in schools (Broadfoot et al., 1987,1991) that the central issue is the prevailing status quo. Not only is there the inevitable inertia of existing practice, there is also the increasing influence of a ‘categoric’ assessment discourse that underpins conceptions of quality and subjects every aspect of institutional life to scrutiny and judgement in its own terms. Thus the SAPHE project illustrates the way in which those committed to the introduction of lifelong learning-oriented, student-centred assessment practices in higher education are battling against the established discourse that informs prevailing conceptions of what assessment is for and how it should be conducted, both of which have a very different rationale and a very different effect on learning.

It is the argument of this article that the result of this growing emphasis on conventional forms of assessment will be that, whilst there may be some improvement in the conventional skills and knowledge privileged within traditional summative assessment, the radical changes both in the way in which students’ learning is supported and in institutional organisation to facilitate this which will be needed if the ‘learning society’ is to be realised, will be slow to materialise. To the extent that higher education seeks to expand its student intake, as the Dearing report envisaged, so this inhibitor to change is likely to be increasingly important.

As Fryer (1997) suggests:

  • 3 recent major policy reviews of further and higher education - Tomlinson, Kennedy and Dearing all argue the need for radical institutional reform if a start is to be made in bridging the existing deep learning divide in our society. The Tomlinson Report on inclusive learning should decisively shift the focus from problems presented by students to demands on institutions to shape their learning environments in response to students’ needs. ... seen against the major challenges we now face as a nation, it is evident that nothing short of a complete overhaul will provide an adequate response.
  • (Fryer, 1997, The Times Educational Supplement,
  • 28 November, p. 21)

But, the current domination of ‘the assessment panacea’, suggests that such a complete overhaul is unlikely to happen.

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