A week after students in England and Wales receive their exams results, Karim Derrick questions our current education system and explains why we have a real opportunity to lead the world in assessment.
Last week, students in England and Wales received their GCSE results. For most, it was a day of relief. However, it saddens me to see that the current education system still isn’t able to deliver the skills that businesses require. The modern workplace demands problem-solvers and creatives who can collaborate with each other, but none of these abilities are assessed in a traditional exam setting. As a consequence, we could fall behind countries that nurture them.
The exam system is only effective at preparing our young people for the past. The headmaster of Eton College, Tony Little, summed up the situation when he said that little had changed since Victorian times. Exams watchdog Ofqual continues to excuse this system because it is thought to provide valid and reliable results that people can trust. However, it works to the detriment of soft skills and, ultimately, the UK economy.
Advances in technology have consistently shown that validity and reliability are not mutually exclusive from the assessment of 21st-century skills. Breakthroughs have been made, giving us a real opportunity to lead the world in assessment.
Despite our current trajectory, many economies – such as China and Singapore – look to the technology we have in Britain to inspire their teaching practice. But instead of merely exporting our advantage, we should also be seeking to benefit from it. Unless our education system opens doors for young people, they won’t be ready for the 21st-century workplace.
Chief executive officer, TAG Assessment
Written tests aren’t always the best way to assess learning – Matt Wingfield shares his top five methods that could be more effective for further education and says students will be the losers if vocational courses are forced to include exams.
The recent announcement that exams will be compulsory for all level 3 vocational qualifications has caused feverish debate in the further education sector. Last month Charlotte Bosworth talked about snobbery towards vocational learning and suggested that Whitehall was introducing the exams as a way to tackle this.
The government is quite right that “rigour” is needed to ensure courses are of a high quality, but is an academic-style exam really the most appropriate way to measure non-academic skills, knowledge and competencies?
There are many approaches that are better than written tests for assessing learning – and, crucially, they do not penalise learners who struggle with academic exams. Here are five methods of assessment that can work well on vocational courses:
A computer-based testing model that automatically pinpoints areas where learners can improve. If the student gets a question wrong, an easier one is generated, or if they get one right, a harder one comes up. As the difficulty of each test is tailored to the student’s ability, the candidate has a vastly enhanced learning experience. Moreover, all questions come from the same item bank, so the results can be graded and standardised nationally.
The technique is already widespread in the US and Australia and is used here on IT courses and modules on quality management by NHS Scotland. It is limited, however, by the need for subject matter experts to create the item banks. Writing test questions is a specialist skill and in some niche vocations there may be insufficient experts to develop a test.
Computer-based testing allows an emphasis on non-written items, such as pictures, diagrams and drag-and-drop tasks, so language isn’t a barrier.
Learners can take tests whenever they are ready, not just at the end of term, as the randomised questions mean there’s no danger of students copying each other.
All of the major awarding bodies have already adopted this method – specifically when assessing competency and capability skills, rather than knowledge. Many government-owned testing programmes use the approach, such as the theory test for learning to drive.
A great benefit of this approach is that teachers are saved a huge amount of admin and marking time. This is one of the examples of how technology has allowed us to move beyond multiple-choice exams towards other mechanisms that can be automatically marked. However, when short answers will not suffice, a human marker is still vital.
Unlike written tests, technology can be used to immerse the learner in the simulation of a real-life scenario and assess how they respond to applying their knowledge in the appropriate context. This practical assessment of skills is delivered using web and tablet-based technologies.
The method is being used to great success for examining IT skills, such as database engineers, and European Union customs officers use it for frontline jobs. The approach is also ideal for many engineering and agricultural jobs, particularly as both industries are increasingly using robots and drones. Sometimes, however, there is no substitute for testing skills in a real-life scenario and, as with adaptive testing, there may be too few subject experts to create tests in niche areas.
e-Portfolios are ideal for supporting coursework and end-of-course assessments. They allow a student’s work to be assessed, verified, graded and given feedback remotely by the learning provider or a third party. They also mean students have an up-to-date, interactive representation of their achievements as they develop their skills.
This approach is useful wherever a portfolio of evidence is needed to demonstrate practical skills or on-the-job-training, such as with apprenticeships. The majority of colleges, major awarding bodies and sector skills councils use the approach.
The pros far outweigh the cons for this method, as vocational learning is all about practical skills and a portfolio is the best way to collect and display evidence of this. The only limitation is that some students may not have access to a device to create the portfolio, but this is becoming less of an issue in the UK.
Further education providers are increasingly keen to measure employability skills. Innovative, evidence-based e-assessment technologies are being used to capture and examine knowledge, understanding and practical abilities which are directly relevant to the workplace.
For example, OCR has a suite of new qualifications that focus on this area and use technologies to look at entrepreneurial and business skills. The University of Edinburgh offers all final-year undergraduates an employability focused diploma known as the Edinburgh Award, which incorporates technology for peer review. Many of the government’s work programme providers also use work-readiness methods, such as computer skills tests.
This approach directly addresses the increasing demand from employers for people to be more work-ready, but it needs to be used in conjunction with other vocational assessments.
What these alternatives to academic testing show is that the key is finding the right balance. Some areas of education will always need a more academic, exam-based approach. But when assessing practical skills we need to be open-minded in the methods we use and take advantage of the opportunities that technology offers. Industries are changing rapidly and we are never going to give people the skills needed to meet ever-changing demands if we insist on restricting ourselves to a 19th-century assessment model.
Matt Wingfield, Chief Business Development Officer and Chairman of the e-Assessment Association
Panelist, Lydia Beaton (James Dyson Foundation) looks at why TAG Assessment’s e-portfolio based assessment solution won runner-up in the category Technological Innovation of the Year.
“This e-portfolio based assessment solution from TAG Assessment supports AfL, student reflection and professional development for schools and colleges, universities and professional accreditation. “We have seen MAPS used with great success at Writhlington School. The students were designing, building and testing parachutes to deliver aid in remote locations. As part of this, they used MAPs to create a project diary in which they documented the various iterations of their design. It also allowed them to photograph and record the testing process. These diaries were easily shared with the rest of the class. What particularly excites us about this product is its potential for project based subjects. If the exam boards could endorse the use of software like this, it could change the way GCSEs or A Level submissions are accepted. It would aid the assessment of the iterative design process.” Panelist, Lydia Beaton (James Dyson Foundation).