We all have a 'relationship' with assessment

by Simon Child, 13 February 2019
Dr Mary Richardson speaking

Simon Child explains how the concept of trust, as explored by Dr Mary Richardson in a recent seminar, informs his work as Head of Assessment Training for the Cambridge Assessment Network.

For anyone that has worked in the world of educational assessment for a period of time, you may be familiar with being asked the question:

‘So, exams are much easier now, aren’t they?’

It is interesting whenever I am asked this question for two reasons. First, I am challenged with articulating subtleties around the concepts of assessment standards, rigour and validity in a way that is engaging enough so that the person who asked the question does not regret asking it! Secondly, I wonder where this particular view of the examinations system has emerged.

Dr Mary Richardson from University College London (pictured above), in her seminar for the Cambridge Assessment Network, offered some insights on this issue as she spoke about the role of assessment in the ‘post-truth’ world. In her accessible and thought-provoking presentation, she argued that when it comes to assessment, there are particular discourses that permeate society. Mary also argued that trust in educational assessments can be fostered and maintained through increased transparency.

What I found particularly interesting about Mary’s seminar was that she emphasised the role of evidence building and verification in the development of trust in assessment, and assessment systems more broadly. She argued that a key principle underpinning the development of trust was encouraging key actors, including educators, policy makers, students, families, and assessment organisations, to have the space and opportunity to critically evaluate assessment practice.

This point chimed with me in my role the Head of Assessment Training at the Cambridge Assessment Network. In my day-to-day working life, I develop and deliver professional development that aims to build lasting expertise in assessment. Professional development in assessment is typically (and necessarily) principle led.

At The Network, we understand that effective professional development in assessment is underpinned by a deep understanding of concepts such as validity, reliability, standards, and practicality. Furthermore, understanding the relations amongst these principles is essential, as practitioners who create and use assessments have to make multiple decisions that have implications for the quality of their assessments. It is always fascinating to observe how practitioners negotiate the tensions that inevitably emerge.

For example, the Postgraduate Certificate course that The Network runs in collaboration with the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge aims to foster a critical approach to assessment theory and practice, which can have a deep and lasting impact on students’ working lives. The fact that educational assessment has elements of art as well of science is a key outcome of such professional learning.

Practitioners also become aware that they themselves hold certain conceptions regarding assessment (truthful or not!). Practitioners bring with them their own ‘assessment identity’, which is a culmination of all of their previous interactions with educational measurement. The notion of ‘assessment identities’ has gained momentum in recent years, led by educational researchers such as Gavin Brown at the University of Auckland and Anne Looney at Dublin City University. It is based on the idea that practitioners hold particular schemas, beliefs and concepts regarding assessment which they use as a framework to make judgements in their context. Practitioners’ identities will naturally guide decisions made in assessment-related scenarios, for example when designing an examination paper, or creating classroom questions for formative purposes. In this sense, we all have a personal ‘relationship’ with assessment that is constantly evolving as we learn more about its capabilities and limitations in our own context.

In her seminar, Mary argued that beliefs about assessment can be shaped by a variety of sources, including newspaper articles, social media and even literature for children. These beliefs can manifest in different ways, such as the example I gave at the beginning of this blog. A key challenge of professional development in assessment is to reveal practitioners’ previously-held conceptions, so that they themselves can critique and challenge them. This analytical approach is important as it can contribute to a more transparent and honest discourse about the benefits and challenges of educational assessment.

Simon Child
Head of Assessment Training, Cambridge Assessment Network


Click here to watch a recording of the seminar 'Assessment in a post-truth world'. Dr Richardson has also answered questions posed by the audience on her Twitter account.

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