The process and endgames of learning are very different from the goals of assessment. Yet, we continue to link the two. Educational institutions bear the burden of serving two masters when there is little that needs to hold them to this tradition any more. Schools have been reviled for being sausage factories, where teachers teach to the test. The linking of learning and assessment has skewed education for generations and it is time we moved away from the effects of this conflation.
Institutions of learning do not necessarily need to be halls of assessment, too. There is no reason for schools to hold examinations, no reason for teachers to also be assessors. Nor does it make sense to interrupt learning and set aside time every few months for formative and summative assessments. These can be run independent of each other both in terms of scheduling and authority. It has the potential to make the process of assessment more transparent and standardized across schools and curricula. We also move a step closer to performing better on international assessments such as the Programme for International Student Assessment and the Annual Status of Education Report as children learn to manage different types of testing.
Does this mean we do away with assessments, examinations and marks? On the contrary, we introduce the choice to do as many or as few of them as is appropriate for the student. This calls for a diverse range of assessments that are available to students both privately and via their schools. Each school can work towards teaching to one or many of these tests. Broader and deeper learning will allow schools to be confident enough to introduce the option of multiple tests. Those teaching in a linear manner may only be able to teach to one type of test.
One of the roles of assessment is to test for achievement and attainment levels of students, and, therefore, by proxy of their teachers and schools. It can continue to perform the role—even better than before since the testing is handed to independent agencies. External testing happens as and when the students choose. It is not restricted to the summative year, which means that there is visibility of the paths through which its students progress. Given the current emphasis on marks and certification, this would be a system that meets the needs of the students and their parents in more ways than they can currently access.
An ecosystem of assessments can either grow organically or it can be designed to meet learning standards and ambitions of society. Assessments within this ecosystem may evaluate students on employability, application, knowledge, critical thinking, among others. A diverse range of tests will ensure that schools can choose their portfolio of assessments based on their resources and ethos. Students can build a portfolio of certificates based on ability and skills.
This begins to break the tyranny of the classroom and move towards creating individual learning pathways. The freedom to choose assessments restores the balance in the education system and places the student firmly at the centre. Instead of the assessments driving the student, questions will need to be answered about the kind of assessments that will suit the abilities of the student. Teaching will then have to be geared towards enhancing those abilities. Not just that, since different students may be taking different tests, their schedules will also have to be part of their individual learning plans—again putting the student needs first.
Let teachers teach, supported by a range of learning materials. Do not give them either the luxury of a known examiner (often themselves), nor the pressure of a known examination pattern. A school does not have to be limited by location, time or age. Let tutor centres flourish because their contribution is of value, too. They too will be forced to evolve if the exam designs build on true understanding, not rote learning.
Let those who understand assessment work to deliver innovative and targeting testing mechanisms. The design of individual assessments, their equitable access and their honest marking is an enterprise in itself. A well designed diverse set of assessments and accreditations will transform education as we know it. Let knowledge and skills be assessed with equal respect. Let assessments be available to all, let credits for these be so honest and valid that they work as currency to the next level, or as entry to other pathways.
Let everyone have a choice in what they want to do—and the proportion of their time and money they want to invest. Will the student not be too pressured by all these assessments? If learning has been true then students do not need to feel the pressure of examinations. This is like asking a professional chef to feel the pressure if they must make perfect rice everyday. This is what students must get used to: knowing stuff, knowing how to use stuff and showing how to use stuff.
It is not difficult to do this, but it is a daring policy change. Once stated, it becomes painfully obvious that delinking teaching from assessments is the only way to encourage true learning and fair evaluation.
Meeta Sengupta is an education policy and strategy advisor to foundations and educational institutions. She writes regularly on education and innovation.