Assessment in a "post-truth" world

01 February 2019

In 2005 Baroness Onora O'Neill -  renowned for her BBC Reith Lectures - presented at the launch of the Cambridge Assessment Network on the key issue of trust in UK public institutions. Now, in 2019, in a “post-truth” world, how are people expected to believe in the value of educational assessments?

This is the area that Dr Mary Richardson set out to explore at a recent Cambridge Assessment Network seminar. An Associate Professor at UCL Institute of Education in London, Dr Richardson argued that in the UK, but also globally, we "face a significant challenge in understanding what is meant by truth and in establishing what counts as trustworthy in many aspects of public life". Such challenges are aligned with the dominance of so-called post-truth discourses.

Post-truth, named by Oxford Dictionaries as its Word of the Year in 2016, is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. She said it often meant expertise was mocked or derided, and this applied to expertise in education and assessment as much as any other arena.

“Essentially the discourses surrounding public issues have become polarised; many debates lack substantive truth in relation to the evidence presented and thus, public levels of mistrust and scepticism have flourished,” she told the seminar in Cambridge.

She said a vicious circle often operated in which falsehoods, or “fake news”, perpetuated confusion and led to mistrust.

“It ramps up a level of confusion which builds really shaky arguments which feed back into very poor ideas which then perpetuate falsehood, and that continues to sustain this post truth narrative that feeds back into the public discourse,” she said.

Dr Richardson, who is writing a book about her findings, said there was a “significant lack of understanding” amongst the general public about what the practice, processes and outcomes of educational assessment were, and although it had improved in recent decades, there was still some way to go.

She said the “million dollar question” was how to debunk the myths that have built up around educational assessment. She said duality – where complicated arguments were reduced to simple ‘for and against’ positions - had to be challenged.

“How do we establish ideas and truths and challenge some of the falsehoods?” she asked.

“I think the only way we can really establish trust in what it is that we do and really develop a sense of trustworthiness about assessment and education is to make sure that we have everybody engaged,” she said.

She concluded that there are four main areas to focus on: a commitment to reframing terminology to improve understanding; improving communication with stakeholders and the public; transparency and a commitment to truth; and lastly engaging people, as it was a vital public endeavour.

The seminar was followed by a question and answer session in which a large audience in the room and an even larger global audience online discussed and debated the issues raised.