Opinion Piece – Keith MasekoWhy incorporating an external assessment programme into the educational continuum is essential

The assessment process, both inside and outside the Black Box (i.e. the classroom), needs divergent thinking to make it more effective. Currently there are poor formative assessment practices taking place in classrooms. Additionally, fraudulent and irregular summative assessment practices are jeopardising the situation. When irregularities occur, Assessment Bodies are required to report assessment irregularities to their respective Quality Councils (QC’s). The question is “Should irregularity reporting be the sole responsibility of Assessment Bodies? What about the major role players inside the Black Box?”

Standards inside the Black Box can be raised through assessments. The Assessment Reform Group (ARG) commissioned from the work done by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam documented that:

  • Assessments are an integral part of teaching and learning.
  • Assessments are powerful tools in promoting effective and efficient learning.

It does beg the question: Assessment of learning (grading and reporting purposes) versus Assessment for learning (innovative and supportive purposes) – which one is better? The answer is neither, they are both as important as each other and should be integrated!

Assessments can be used to engage and encourage through effective feedback and prompting active participation of learners in their own learning. We should set new standards of achievement by encouraging teaching to take into cognisance the results of assessments and the impact assessment has on learners from a motivational and self-esteem point of view in the learning process. By allowing learners to be able to assess themselves (in a formative setup) through creative means, it will help them to understand where to improve.

Integrating Formative and Summative (External) Assessments provides invaluable data. Summative Assessments can monitorperformance of a school and system; can influence curriculum planning and delivery and can lead to enhancing learner performance in the classroom. Factors that influence integration include the reliability of data; ability of teachers to use data for the benefit of the learner and the lack of training for teachers/facilitators on how to analyse and use assessment results.

“Open Communication” with the Black Box is essential. It is vital to continuously provide both “feedback” and “feedforward” to the Black Box in order to prepare the learner for learning and the assessment. Reports generated through markers and moderators are useful sources of information that can assist teachers/facilitators to develop improvement strategies. In the “sacred space” of “feedback” and “feedforward”, Benchmark can play a significant role in training educators on how to analyse assessment results and use external assessment results to improve learner performance.

Supporting teachers to improve learner performance helps to identify learner strengths and weaknesses; determine appropriate interventions; obtain ideas for “next steps” and record trends in performance over time. Providing feedback to teachers is beneficial as it provides vital information for planning and implementation that is specific to curriculum/learning outcomes. Effective and supportive feedback promotes a reduction in workload for teachers.

The External Assessment Programme falls outside the Black Box. Long, Dunne and Mokoena (2014) advocate for an external assessment programme that integrates well into the education continuum through three central components, namely:

  • An Accountability component, where information is fed back into the official channels responsible for the conduct and servicing of education.
  • A Professional development component, where the highlighted areas of teaching and learning needs are catered for.
  • A Formative development component, where teachers/facilitators work closely and reflectively within their classrooms and professional learning communities. (see Bennett & Gitomer, 2009).

From a birds eye point of view national assessments provide essential information that identifies areas in need of intervention; indicates where resources are needed most and develop and monitor appropriate intervention programmes. There is an urgent need for information to identify most vulnerable schools/learning centres and learners and inform interventions to address their needs.

Currently the primary challenges are the relevancy and practicality of current assessment polices as well as availability and maintenance of resources (mechanisms) of implementation. The continuous increase in administrative paper work within the education continuum coupled with frameless performance indicators adds pressure to the system. The examination system is plagued with irregularities, fraudulent certificates/qualifications and innovative irregularities such as the use of cell phones and impersonations. Effective use of information in making appropriate decisions to improve learner achievement is important, especially learners from rural areas and poor backgrounds.

Therefore New Black Boxes need changes such as revised frameworks to policies, regulations and directives. Fosteringpartnerships that consolidate the educational continuum into a full circle will in turn enhance assessment practices. Benchmark is currently debating the idea of establishing an Assessment Specialist Panel (ASP). This panel will be focussed on advising on areas of research as well as ensuring that best practices are shared. Research findings can be shared amongst interested stakeholders and policymakers. The panel would be made up of assessment and curriculum experts as well as training and assessment providers.

Assessments are the single most powerful tool in raising standards and empowering lifelong learners – there needs to be shift from just measuring standards to improving standards. To do this, there needs to be a clear distinction between Assessment of Learning and Assessment for Learning. This can be done with a holistic view of running formative and summative assessments in unison. Assessment Bodies and Quality Councils need to have a solid appreciation of the challenges and successes in the classroom. Assessments are now answering the needs of specific industries and are moving away from paper based to electronic assessments. Learners with disabilities are being accommodated in new assessment methods. Teachers are able to interpret assessment results and take appropriate action. These are all promising signs that integration of external assessment programmes into the education continuum can and will work.

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