Join the assessment debate

18th June 2004 at 01:00
Colin Flint reviews two books which are sure to open up worthwhile discussions about qualifications.

Understanding Assessment and Qualifications in Post-Compulsory Education. Professor Ecclestone. NIACE ISBN 1-86201-147-8. pound;18.95

Learning Autonomy in Post-16 Education. Routledge Falmer ISBN 0-415-24741-1. pound;22.99.

A fair, easily understood and politically acceptable assessment methodology may be regarded as the Holy Grail of our education system. There is about as much chance of finding it as any study of past attempts demonstrates only too clearly. Professor Ecclestone is perhaps our leading and most assiduous analyst, and these books present a cogent, lucid - and in the case of Understanding Assessment in particular, remarkably readable - account of the problems and issues.

Learning Autonomy is the earlier book, and its motivation according to its author was two-fold: "To go beyond academic fault-finding in order to offer a more rational basis for improving the links between assessment and learning" and "to promote forms of learning and assessment that are genuinely empowering, inspiring and motivating for students and teachers alike".

Such forms are, of course, not hard to find: all good adult educators use them, and they were an essential part of the philosophy which underpinned the early development of general national vocational qualifications. The repeated changes in the GNVQ model between 1992 and 2000 are a powerful illustration of the prevailing and official attitudes towards attainment and testing, in which we pay lip-service to such concepts as empowerment and motivation and adopt instead "a compliant, ultimately meaningless, pursuit of performance targets".

Professor Ecclestone is well versed in GNVQ, having spent two years observing lessons, marking assignments, and interviewing teachers and students in two further education colleges in the North-east.

The experience of teachers and students in FE, and the political context in which colleges sought to deliver vocational qualifications to full-time students, is at the heart of the book, enabling an informed and penetrating analysis of the policy developments and the confusing and often ambiguous messages about autonomy and motivation which have been offered to those attempting to make sense of this important area of education.

A compelling strand of the argument is about the "risk-aversion" educational culture in which we operate. The radical aims of the designers of GNVQ came to be seen as putting the public credibility of standards at risk. One of the tables in the book details the main vocational initiatives in England between 1979 and 2000. It is a catalogue of failure, from which no-one can draw credit: it illustrates only too well why we wait, hopefully but anxiously, for the recommendations of Mike Tomlinson's working party.

Understanding Assessment seeks to help us reach a balance between assessment that is flexible, accessible and inclusive - assessment which is therefore motivational and encouraging to learners - and yet which allows properly for quality assurance and maintenance of standards. This is a practical book: it offers such things as a glossary of assessment terms (which runs to six pages) and chapters on "Using assessment to enhance learning", and "Developing an organisational strategy for learning".

It is also a necessary book, because there is an urgent need for greater charity and rationalisation. As the author says: "A complex system of credits, certification processes, quality assurance and qualifications, offered by hundreds of awarding bodies, continues to confuse the public, practitioners, institution managers, inspectors and LSC alike". To add to the confusion, there has not been a coherent strategy for professional development. FE colleges, the main provider by far of vocational programmes and qualifications, have largely lost control of the curriculum and assessment options. The rigidities of the inspection systems, and the demand for target-driven, easily quantifiable outcomes have made learner-centred approaches much harder to sustain. One of the results of all of this is that we have too much assessment, rather than the right amount of the right kind.

There is compelling research evidence that appropriate assessment can play a powerful role in motivating and empowering learners. The implication is that we need to understand the different principles and purposes of assessment much better than most practitioners are currently encouraged to do. We need to learn afresh to use assessment more imaginatively and strategically.

We have good examples. A key problem, however, is that much of the work that demonstrates the principles which we need to encourage is currently under threat. What the Learning and Skills Council describes as "other provision", much non-accredited learning, all in fact that is not within the national qualifications framework, is in danger of being starved of resources, as finite funds are directed at higher priorities in 14-19 education and the level 2 skills guarantee. At a time when there is more interest in the use of credit as a means of widening participation and extending the concept of lifelong learning, we risk losing much influential experience and practice.

This volume aims to raise the debate around assessment purposes and practices, analysing diagnostic, formative and summative forms and types such as norm-referenced and criterion-referenced.

A chapter is devoted to evaluation of the links between formative and summative, and key aspects of quality assurance are explored.

This is a really useful, practical book grounded in sound research and equally sound argument. Both books make a most valuable contribution to a crucial debate. It is to be hoped that they influence it as much as they deserve to, because the system is broke. It needs fixing.

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