Could learner profiles fix our broken assessment system?

Learner profiles that provide long-term evidence of achievement, and are formative as well as summative, are an excellent option for measuring student knowledge and skill, argue these three educationalists
8th June 2022, 12:51pm
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Could learner profiles fix our broken assessment system?

Across the country, young people are currently in the midst of the first major exams in two years. For many, the pressure will be on to perform at their best and to achieve the grades that - they have long been told - could determine their futures.

These young people will have been in education for either 11 or 13 years. During that time, they have handed in countless assignments, developed a broad range of skills and personal qualities and have contributed to a range of activities. Yet almost the entire progress of their education will be judged on their performance in written, high-stakes exams over a six-week period. A few bad days could risk writing off their entire school career. This is both immensely stressful and unfair.

Two years ago, we formed the Rethinking Assessment coalition. It consists of people from the worlds of education, business and policy who have united behind one clear belief: young people deserve to leave school with so much more than a set of numbers and letters to take with them through their life. The coalition seeks to change a flawed system that, too often, lets young people down and fails to give employers and universities the information they need to make the right recruitment and admissions decisions.

We believe that our vision for a digital learner profile provides a workable alternative to the current inequitable situation. A profile has the power to recognise the full range of strengths of every young person. It needs to be at the heart of the conversation about how we do things differently.

Learner profiles: why we need them and how they work

After 13 years of education, it is a travesty that young people are typically judged solely by a set of numbers and letters. Universities and colleges need more nuanced information to understand the challenges they have faced and their context. Employers repeatedly tell us they want to know what potential employees have and what kind of person they are becoming. One in six employers (and the number is growing fast) currently don’t look at qualifications at all when hiring people.

In our current system, a third of young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, are labelled failures. Even those that “do well” in exams still leave education without a true reflection of the breadth of skills and attributes they possess.  

On top of all of this, the current assessment system places a huge amount of pressure on young people at a time when their brains are still developing. While there remains a place for some high-stakes exams, the global trend is looking toward more effective assessments that can accurately assess not just what students know or can recall, but how they can use the skills they have learned and apply their knowledge.

And such a focus on high-stakes exams inevitably narrows the curriculum, which disempowers teachers and de-incentivises schools from developing crucial lifelong skills such as teamwork, problem solving and creative thinking, which are never formally assessed.

The new learner profile:

  • Provides evidence of achievement over the long term - by giving young people the chance to capture and report on their best work over their time at school. This is far more informative for employers than a snapshot of how they performed in exams over a series of days.
  • Moves beyond a dependency on high-stakes exams - while still allowing for performance in traditional exams to be part of the picture.
  • Gives employers the information they want - by capturing information about a young person’s communication, collaboration and critical thinking abilities.
  • Continues to reflect achievements as people evolve - by allowing young people to add to it throughout their lives and take control of their learning.
  • Provides context on students for universities - by showing how young people have overcome obstacles in their path.
  • Is formative as well as summative - giving young people a chance to describe their strengths, the things they have overcome and what they are like as a learner.

More teaching and learning:

So how do the profiles work in practice? It captures the competency of young people across a much broader range of strengths and achievements, stays with them during their life and provides a much fuller picture of their abilities than the current assessment system. 

This approach is already national policy across Australia, with regional and international prototypes now being tested. It is increasingly being used through initiatives such as the Mastery Transcript Consortium in the USA and across the world.

The profile will capture competence across the three Cs (creative thinking, collaboration, communication/oracy) and explores the building blocks of literacy, numeracy, digital skills and oracy. It captures formal qualifications and presents them along with other achievements, such as personal projects and awards for drama, adventure and civic service.

The profile will link to a portfolio of the young person’s best work, providing real evidence of what they can do. It will also give space for a student to describe what they are like as a learner and what they have overcome. Students will be able to draw on their emerging portfolios to reflect on their progress in parent consultations.

At this stage, this is a first draft. We are working hard with employers, colleges and universities to refine the profile so it provides these key destinations with the breadth of information they are looking for and in a format that is easily digested.

We have launched a consultation on the new learner profile. We want to hear from all those who work with young people so that we can ensure our thinking evolves to capture valuable insights from the field. Please visit the learner profile page to learn more and contribute.

Peter Hyman, Bill Lucas and Rachel Macfarlane are all part of the Rethinking Assessment coalition

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