Assessment and grading in STEM education

It was about time I blogged on something!

This post is in part a response to a series by Becky Allen on the use of grading strategies to motivate student performance.

I started looking at educational assessment in 2002 when I was asked to kick start a Royal Society project on 14-19 science assessment. This included scoping out a specification and seeking tenders from research groups. In the end the contract went to the King’s College London science education team which included the legendary Paul Black and the highly respected Jonathan Osborne.

It was a real eye opener working on the project! I knew very little about the ins and outs of assessment but had to have a quick learning curve. Despite some struggles along the way a working group managed to take the KCL team findings and condense them into a 2-page policy document aimed at Government.

What struck me most at that point?

The importance of formative as opposed to summative assessment in science education.

Were we heard by those in charge?

Not really.

I repeated the same exercise soon after for 14-19 maths with the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) and unsurprisingly we came to similar conclusions.

Again we weren’t heard.

I began to understand the difficulties of turning policy recommendations backed by considerable evidence into reality within education.

Fast forward to 2013 when I submitted an (as yet unpublished) independent report on science assessment and grading to Cambridge Assessment/OCR at their request. Again plenty of evidence in it, reinforced by messages from those actually responsible for setting national examinations in the subject. Once more few if any actual outcomes.

It had become clear to me that assessment was too complex a policy area linked as it was, in the English schools system at least, to the more powerful accountability system. Even Tony Blair had caved in to pressure against the proposed Tomlinson reforms to 14-19 education partly aimed at lowering the stakes. Ofsted still dominates English schools even though Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is now taking a serious look at its role as an make-or-break inspectorate. But how long before he too succumbs to the inevitable?

Having recently spent three years looking closely at higher education, including servicing accreditation panel reviews of civil, structural and highways engineering departments, I am more convinced than ever that we need to free up the whole weighty and complex assessment system in UK education.

Such a change would allow students to convert their learning into more useful outcomes for themselves, their future employers and, above all, the system itself, groaning as it is under the burden of fantastical expectations.

Whisper this quietly, but it might even be more important in the long term than Brexit.