Throughout this Blueprint, we have argued that to maximize its usefulness in the 21st century world, high school education must shift its emphasis away from simply conveying information, and instead must emphasize broad Habits of Mind and the skills learners will need in order to find, assess, and process information. This shift will require major changes in curriculum, teaching methods, teacher training and support, and school structure, as we have discussed in Chapters 2–6. In this chapter, we discuss another major change that will be necessary: change in the way we assess student progress.
Assessment is vital for students, who need to be aware of the progress they are making and their areas of weakness and of strength. However, the most widely-used assessment methods, which generally centre on formal examinations of various types, are best suited to measuring recall of information.
They are far less effective at measuring “softer” skills such as teamwork, creativity, and resilience. Since these latter skills are precisely what we most want to teach, schools must find better ways to measure students’ mastery of them, or else risk having incentives that run at cross purposes to their true goals.
Assessment serves three distinct functions in education today:
1. Provides feedback to learners – about their progress, strengths, and areas for improvement
2. Sorts students by level of achievement – used by employers, post-secondary educational institutions, and others in their hiring, selection, and credentialing process
3. Provides data for evaluating the performance of schools and school systems – so that administrators can reward those that are performing well and act to remedy those that are performing poorly
The second and third of these functions do not directly benefit the student’s learning process. Indeed, as we shall see in a moment, they often actively interfere with successful learning by driving the system away from good learning experiences. Therefore, we propose that student assessment should focus exclusively on the one role that is an intimate part of the learning process, namely providing feedback to students. In the final section of this chapter, we will briefly discuss how the latter two functions, sorting and school assessment can be handled in other ways.
The Role of Examinations and Grading in Assessment
We will begin this section by laying out what most will see as a radical proposal. We recommend that schools abandon the use of formal examinations and grading in student assessment.
Grades focus attention on outcomes, not the learning process itself. As a result, the grade often becomes more important than what was actually learned. Some exams – notably finals and state or national standardized tests – deliver feedback only when it is too late to refine further learning for that student in that subject. Furthermore, grades encourage the wrong kind of competition in school – competition between students – and do a poor job of encouraging the right kind of competition, namely the internal competitiveness that drives a learner to do his or her very best. Internal competitiveness leads students to work toward continual improvement, rather than some absolute target. Internal competitiveness motivates every student, regardless of their background or level of ability, to perform at their highest possible level.
Exams are ineffective at measuring what we most value in education and, increasingly, post-secondary education and industry: creativity, resourcefulness, teamwork, communication and related skills. These “soft” skills are difficult to quantify and difficult for students to demonstrate during a high-pressure formal examination. Students can display these skills most effectively while engaged in practical projects, not highly artificial exams. The failure of exams to measure these skills is clear anecdotally from the many highly capable, highly intelligent individuals – for example, Thomas Edison and Richard Branson – who do badly in school. However, more quantitative data sets also back up this point.60 For example, test scores do a very poor job of predicting entrepreneurial ability, which is one of the soft skills that education should work to foster. Indeed, countries with higher PISA test scores tend to score lower, not higher, on measures of entrepreneurial activity.61
For many students, exams and formal grades are demotivating and lead to disengagement from learning. FutureLab, an educational research centre in the UK, puts this most clearly: “Most examinations and tests are designed primarily to assess whether a student has made a particular grade or to identify what grade they have achieved, according to some standardized or tailored scale. Their primary purpose, therefore, is not to support learning but to categorize the learner – arguably to identify what they cannot do rather than what they can do.” 62 By focusing on a student’s weaknesses rather than strengths, exams and grades can discourage students from believing they can succeed – not just at the task being tested, but at other tasks as well: “Comparison with others who have been more successful is unlikely to motivate learners. It can also lead to their withdrawing from the learning process in areas where they have been made to feel they are ‘no good.’”63 This is especially true of learners with disabilities, immigrants or others who are not fluent in the dominant local language, or who come from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. This tends to increase the achievement gap between these students and those from more advantaged backgrounds, and thus helps perpetuate social inequality.64
Exams often lead to “teaching to the test,” particularly when test results are used to evaluate the performance of whole schools. This discourages learners from following their own interests or digging deeper into productive topics that arise serendipitously, and thus narrows their learning opportunities. It also prevents teaching teams from doing the best job they are capable of, and has led to significant disengagement amongst learning professionals.65
For all these reasons, student assessment should move away from exams and formal grades in favour of other forms of assessment that offer greater educational advantages. Many of these forms of assessment are already in use in almost every classroom, though often overshadowed by exams. Others have expressed a similar wish: “Assessment that encourages learning fosters motivation by emphasizing progress and achievement rather than failure […] Motivation can be preserved and enhanced by assessment methods which protect the learner’s autonomy, provide some choice and constructive feedback, and create opportunity for self-direction.”66
Learners’ progress should be assessed interactively and continuously as an intrinsic part of the learning process. Project-based education offers ample opportunity for learners to receive feedback on their progress through self-reflection, from their peers, from teachers, and from outside experts drawn from the community. In this way, learners should know at all times what their strengths are, where they have room for improvement, and how they are addressing their progress. Because of this, learners should receive more assessment, not less, despite doing away with formal exams.
Not only will this improve their learning outcomes, this form of continual assessment parallels what will happen throughout a learner’s life once they leave formal schooling. In the world outside of school, the key skill is learning itself – how one gets better at what one does, at work and in life as a whole. Assessment in school should follow the same lines. In our project-based learning, groups of learners will continually be evaluating their progress toward the project’s goal, and how their knowledge and abilities are affecting their performance and that of the group. Every group member will have frequent opportunity to reflect on what they have accomplished so far, what has worked and why, and where they have fallen short of, or surpassed, their goal and why. As group members meet for discussion, each will gain experience both at assessing the work of others constructively, and at receiving others’ assessments in a productive way. In addition, learners will receive input from teachers and other learning professionals, and sometimes from experts drawn from outside the school.
Implementation of Reformed Assessment
This system of assessment lays the foundation for deeper learning and stronger student achievement by supporting the learner with critical information that can help direct their learning pathway. At the beginning of each school year, each learner will meet individually with a teacher-mentor to lay out the learner’s goals for the year, identifying the particular skills and Habits of Mind that have top priority for that year, and identifying some of the subjects the learner is most interested in exploring. These are the goals against which the learner will be assessed in the year to come.
One of the strengths of this approach is that this kind of assessment has actually been going on informally in classrooms for many years. As the Assessment Reform Group observed more than a decade ago, “Much of what teachers and learners do in classrooms can be described as assessment.
That is, tasks and questions prompt learners to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding and skills. What learners say and do is then observed and interpreted, and judgements are made about how learning can be improved. These assessment processes are an essential part of everyday classroom practice and involve both teachers and learners in reflection, dialogue and decision making.”67
In other words, teachers are already skilled at identifying the strengths and weaknesses of individual students and providing the kinds of feedback we envision. In most classrooms today, however, this informal assessment takes a back seat to formal exams and grading – which, we re-emphasize, have no justifiable place in the 21st century learning process. Teachers are likely to require some additional training to assist them with the transition as they eliminate exams and grades completely and shift exclusively to formative assessment and feedback.
In addition, new applications such as Learning Analytics will allow teachers to tap the power of technology to gauge students’ understanding and misconceptions with a subtlety that even well-trained humans cannot.68
The increased attention to formative assessment may require more time and attention from teachers, but this should be offset by the time saved by no longer preparing, administering, and grading exams. From time to time, learners may want to test their own knowledge about a particular subject to satisfy themselves that they have mastered certain skills or areas of knowledge – for example, to be sure they understand a statistical procedure before analyzing a data set, or to reassure themselves that they know enough historical context for a particular project. When these needs arise, learners can turn to available tools, such as online self-testing and review modules, to test their own progress without the stress of formal assessments via exams. Such resources are already widely available for many subjects. If schools adopt the reforms we recommend, a critical mass should soon develop that will encourage third-party providers to produce more such modules.
A Flexible Progression
Most educational systems today measure student progress through a final exam at the end of the year, and the final grade represents that progress. In other words, the system treats time as the constant and achievement as the variable. Our proposed alternative reverses this by holding achievement as the constant and taking time as the variable – a practice that at least some school systems are already moving toward today.69 Students can continue to work on a skill or concept until they master it, even if it takes several projects spanning more than one year. This frees students to progress at their own pace, rewards persistence, and gives every student the satisfaction of successful completion. Learners will meet with their teacher- mentor regularly throughout the year to review progress, refine goals, and plan strategies for the learner to attain those goals.
Since schools will no longer assign grades for particular courses, they will need to develop a different method for keeping track of learners’ progress throughout their high school careers. Schools may differ in how they choose to do this. Some may track students’ advancement along a learning progression for a particular concept, others may use portfolios of student work to demonstrate development.
Assessments that focus on learners’ progress and not their deficiencies produce better educational outcomes because they reduce the discouragement and disengagement that poor exam scores often produce.70 This benefit is especially notable for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who disproportionately share in that disengagement.71
The success of this exam-free, exclusively formative assessment can be seen in the results of The Independent Project. Participants in that project received weekly assessments from their peers and prepared portfolios of their work. The project’s final report concludes that “These forms of evaluation were effective because the purpose of the evaluation wasn’t the evaluation itself, but what it would lead to.” This took the emphasis and pressure off of the evaluation, and put it on the process and the work. In this way the need for summative assessment was nullified and the formative assessments became what they intended to be. They led to more learning, and improved the students’ work.72
Today’s society uses high school assessments not just to measure student progress, but for many additional purposes. In particular, course grades as recorded in a student’s transcript are often used by universities and other post-secondary educational institutions to select which students they will admit. High schools should no longer provide this service, since the grading that it requires is detrimental to the education we seek to provide, for the reasons discussed above.
Despite its lack of easy-to-use numeric grades, a strictly formative assessment is in fact just as rigorous as the present system. For one thing, much of the apparent rigour of quantitative grades is a false one: there is no practical difference between a grade of 79% (often assigned a letter grade of B) and 81% (often assigned an A). There certainly are differences in achievement and ability between students with grades that differ more widely, but these distinctions – if they need to be made at all – can be drawn just as easily through qualitative evaluations.
Some universities, employers, and any others who currently rely on high school transcripts might find themselves balking at the task of finding other ways to sift candidates. However, many of the more sophisticated and successful institutions and industries have already recognized the limitations of using exam grades. Many universities – including some of the most prestigious – rely on a combination of essays, community service, and third-party tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (which, admittedly, has its own flaws) in addition to high school grades in making their admissions decisions.
A few businesses may check high school grades when hiring recent graduates. Most, however, merely want to see evidence that a prospective employee has completed high school, so abandoning formal grades should have little impact on direct hiring decisions. Grades on a high school transcript can also be used as proof that students have mastered particular skills, such as computer programming, music performance, or automobile repair. Since our learners will no longer receive grades, this credentialing function will also need to shift to independent providers, and learners should be encouraged to seek these third-party credentials whenever appropriate.
Most school systems also use exam scores – particularly scores on system-wide, standardized tests – as a measure for comparing the performance of schools. Test scores, appropriately corrected for socioeconomic factors, can help highlight exemplary schools that are doing an exceptional job of educating their students. They can also identify schools that need to take remedial measures in order to deliver a high-quality education. States, provinces, and even whole countries also rely on standardized tests such as PISA for benchmarking their performance relative to other school systems.
These functions, too, will have to change as our schools do away with the exams that form the basis of these school comparisons. What will replace them? We emphatically agree that schools will continue to need some sort of quality control to ensure that they are doing their job. However, evaluators can assess a school’s effectiveness without making numerical comparisons between schools. Such a system has proved effective and advantageous in Finland. Indeed, abandoning these numerical comparisons will eliminate a lot of unproductive focus on test scores among teachers and school administrators and put the emphasis back where it belongs – on the learners themselves, and the progress they make. Our recommendations for school oversight will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 7.
International comparisons may be less urgent in the future, if stakeholders are convinced that their education system is delivering high-quality results. Indeed, some experts question their real utility even today.73 In the meantime, however, any data needed for such comparisons can still be generated in a way that does not detract from the learning journeys of individual students. Much of the damage done by testing comes from the pressure it exerts on individual students by encouraging competition and a focus on results rather than process, and on teachers and schools by encouraging teaching to the test. Standardized tests that do not identify individual students or schools, and do not return results to the tested, could be used to provide data for international comparisons with few drawbacks.
60. Heckman, James J, and Tim Kautz. 2012. “Hard Evidence on Soft Skills.” Labour Economics 19: 451-464
61. Busteed, B, 2013. “The Economics of Human Development” at Equinox Summit: Learning 2030, Waterloo, ON.
63. Gardner, J et al. “Assessment and Social Justice,” a Futurelab Literature Review: Report 16.
65. Moon, T. R., Brighton, C. M., Jarvis, J. M., & Hall, C. J. (2007). State Standardized Testing Programs: Their Effects on Teachers and Students . Storrs, CT: The National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented, University of Connecticut.
66. Assessment Reform Group, 2002. “Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles”
69. See, for example, the US State of New Hampshire, the RSA Opening Minds Initiative in the UK. Aynsley, S, et al 2012. Opening Minds: An Evaluative Literature Review; ), and the Lumiar Schools in Brazil.
70. OECD, 2005. “Formative Assessment: Improving Learning in Secondary Classrooms.” Policy Brief.
71. Gardner, J et al. “Assessment and Social Justice,” a Futurelab Literature Review: Report 16.
72. Levin, S, 2011. “The Independent Project White Paper”, p 12.
73. Mansell, W. “PISA: Debunking Some of the More Questionable Claims.” ; Ravitch, D, 2013. “My View of the PISA Scores.” ; Baker, K, 2007. “Are International Tests Worth Anything?” Phi Delta Kappan, 89(2), 101-104
“Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, says the much lauded transformation of the Finnish education system came “at a reasonable cost.” So reasonable, in fact, that 98% of the cost of education at all levels is covered by government rather than by private sources.”