Staying up to speed with educational assessment - an Intuition article with Dr Simon Child

by Simon Child, 08 December 2023

Vocational education and assessment never stand still. Dr Simon Child, Head of Assessment Training with Cambridge Assessment Network explains here how assessment-focused CPD can equip teachers with adaptable skills fit for the future. This interview originally appeared in InTuition magazine, which is the member's newsletter for the Society of Education and Training

"Imagine that you have been given the task of working with a new classroom of students that in one year will be taking a suite of technical qualifications. During the year, you will draw inferences about their progress based on evidence that you have collected. The systematic design, collation and interpretation of this evidence is at the heart of good teaching and forms the basis of strong assessment practice.

We are in a period of change in terms of qualifications and assessment across the vocational sector. T Levels reform and the withdrawal of funding for some qualifications for 16-19-year-olds have left teachers seeking professional support and guidance, both in terms of navigating policy change and also implementing the impacts of such changes on practice in colleges.

While there is an emerging clamour for teachers to have a more fundamental role in creating and delivering assessment for their students, making the most of the opportunity is dependent on teachers holding the knowledge, skills, understanding and leadership required to validly judge performance for different purposes. 

The importance of embedding assessment professional development into day-to-day teacher practice is reflected in the ETF Professional Standards. Among these are two statements that directly refer to assessment practice, as well as many others that include assessment as part of the overall standard.

Assessment, at its best, can support inclusion and equality, serve the needs of teachers and learners to reflect on their work, and reduce workload and costs. But what can be done in the short to medium-term to improve assessment practices in the further education and skills sector and to embed these standards? I suggest below three approaches which might be fruitful. 

1. Reframe assessment as an embedded and natural part of the learning experience

In a famous Tweet from 2013, Dylan Wiliam argued that it was a mistake to use ‘assessment’ in the terms ‘formative assessment’ and ‘assessment for learning’. As an alternative, he suggested that ‘responsive teaching’ was more useful, because it increases the emphasis on the interaction between teacher and student during and after the assessment ‘event’.

His main point here is that ‘assessment’ has a branding problem – it is seen as somewhat detached from the learning experience. As mentioned in the scenario at the beginning of this article, assessment is teaching and understanding what, how and when to assess provides teachers with a powerful toolkit that can be applied every day.

Research on how assessment literacy is developed in teachers by Gavin Brown, Anne Looney, Chris DeLuca and others suggests that attitudes and beliefs about assessment develop from an early age and can persist from someone’s own schooling to their teaching practices. 

These beliefs shape what individual teachers think is possible, and contribute to an overall assessment ‘culture’ within schools and colleges. Persistent beliefs related to assessment practices can stifle innovation even when there are opportunities made possible with technology. 

2. Make the case for how innovation in assessment can enable better educational outcomes and equity

We know that assessment can improve educational attainment and equity for neurodivergent groups. An example of this may be using a diagnostic test to identify additional learning needs or clinical conditions. In recent years, great strides have been made in applying Universal Design and other accessibility principles to assessment, with the explicit aim of providing the maximum opportunity for learners to show what they can do. 

Importantly, assessment approaches can be developed that offer a great degree of precision which can strengthen the overall validity of the assessment experience. For example, emerging technologies that enable simulation of practical tasks may reduce the need to use extended writing or professional conversations; two tasks that potentially introduce barriers to effective performance.   

3. Build assessment-related capability in the sector by supporting the development of assessment experts 

If technological advancements have laid the foundations for innovation in assessment and teaching, then we need to equip teachers within the sector to identify and take advantage of the opportunities available to them. Last year, ETF and the Cambridge Assessment Network collaborated on two free online courses on the purposes and principles of assessment as applied in a vocational context. 

We have noticed that there is an emerging ambition for practitioners to focus on assessment in their professional development, for example as Joanne Byrne did in her Practitioner Research Programme [Testing the theories – inTuition, Summer 2023]. 

The fingerprints of assessment are all over good teaching practice. For the sector to recognise and embrace this is only step one of the journey. Assessment is a fundamental component of responsive teaching, and investing in high-quality professional development can equip teachers with the tools they need for the future."

Cambridge Assessment Network will be running a webinar in partnership with the Society of Education and Training (SET) on Wednesday 21 February 2024. Ensuring validity, reliability and fairness in ‘competence’ based assessments will be open exclusively to members of SET and Cambridge Assessment Network

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