Friday, 1 August 2008

The big assessment question

Assessment has been in the news an awful lot lately, albeit not very positively. There is of course the whole SAT's palava, but i will resist the temptation to comment on that. My position on this is outlines in previous posts on this blog, and I can only say that it is good to see that a lot of the momentum around this seems to be finally heading in the right direction. Its a shame we often need some sort of disaster to finally be open to change. A more surprising current issue is that of the Dyslexic student's exams battle. Which deals with a medical student's problems with multiple choice tests, something further clarified by the BBC in a follow-up article: Why can't people with dyslexia do multiple choice?

The comment by the student's solicitor that "Every professional body or employer who relies for a professional qualification, or as a promotional gateway, on multiple choice questions is heading for a fall." is of course a bit of a joke. Quite frankly I am rather appalled by what seems like a rather misguided attempt to 'make a splash' at the expense of something as crucial as our exams system. While there are many gripes that you could reasonably hold against multiple choice question, I don't think the link to dyslexia is really that valid. Considerations around presentation, or even using screen readers, can reasonably address most potential issues that might result from a disability. in addition, I think we should not shy away from critical reflection on the degree of special provisions that we put in place to accommodate students, as these provisions could significantly alter the nature of an assessment and then compromise the validity and equitability of the award. There will always be differences between learners in how well they perform in various types of assessment. This is one of the reasons to make sure there is a variety of assessment methods being used.

The more interesting question though, is around authenticity. The student in question is quoted in the article, saying that "In normal day life, you don't get given multiple choice questions to sit. Your patients aren't going to ask you 'here's an option and four answers. Which one is right?". And to an extend I think she has a point there. While there will always be situations in which we will have to rely on 'proxy's' to infer attainment, I do agree that currently we rely way too much on proxy's that are sometimes quite remote from the competencies that we try to measure. In this sense education system is stuck in it's traditions, in stead of applying the objective and critical reflection that we say we value so much in higher education.

A similar point, and some suggestions for moving forward, are made in the blog post 21st Century Assessment, where this 'formula' is proposed for a modern fit-for-purpose assessment system. Especially the elements of collaboration and peer assessment are extremely important and very much underutilised in our current practice. Partly I suspect that this links in with how uncomfortable we still are with the loss of our position as the holder and tranferrer of all knowledge. This role warranted a 1 to many broadcast model of education. Education today however is moving much more towards a many to many model, whereby the role of the teacher is much more one of guidance, coaching and accreditation of a learning process that involves peers, external resources and actors and experiences from previous professional roles. I'm not quite sure we are really ready to fulfil that role yet though.

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