Thinking outside the tick box

Gauging achievement as distinct from ability has always been a vexed question, says Wendy Johnson

July 10, 2008

Education is a difficult business. It has always been so, but the rapid pace of technological change and our increasing economic reliance on transmission of information makes the education business more difficult with every passing year. Once it was possible to get along pretty well without even being able to read, but those days are long gone. Now we need a whole citizenry that is able not only to read but to read a lot, with its members able to sort the information chaff from the wheat in what they read, to absorb it and to use it until it is obsolete, and then to throw it away and replace it with new.

This is a tall order because we don't really even know what skills we need to teach in order to accomplish this at the basic mastery level we need for the citizenry. Nonetheless, because our efforts to develop that citizenry are expensive, we need some way of judging whether we have accomplished it and for whom.

This is where assessment comes in. We test the students to see if they have absorbed what we wanted them to absorb, whatever that was. But if they don't perform well on the test we don't know if it's because the educational system has failed to teach them, because they failed to learn or because we didn't give a good test.

If they do perform well, we can rest on our laurels if we like, but we still don't know if we gave a good test. And, good or bad, tests generate scores. The scores from a bad test look every bit as solid sitting there in the records as the scores on a good one.

Gordon Stobart uses this book to rail against the abuses of assessment that result from this hornet's nest of confounded factors. But of course the educational business is really even more difficult than this. It's not just about getting everyone to a certain level of mastery, however we want to define that. It's also about giving people the opportunities to develop their abilities to their fullest potential.

Although it clearly makes him uncomfortable, even Stobart knows that there are individual differences in people's abilities to develop skills of whatever kind, and the more amorphous the skills, the more ability matters. This doesn't mean that certain people can't master certain skills, but it does mean that the time and effort involved may be prohibitive for some but not at all for others. It may not mean that ability is fixed or innate, but it does mean that ability varies at any moment at which we schedule a test and that the timing and specific form of the test matters less to the relative outcomes than we might hope.

The problem is that typical educational assessments, whether they are intended as ability or achievement tests, tap into these individual differences in ability as well as into individual differences in skills - if only because the greater the ability, the greater the skills that will have developed, all else being equal (which of course it never is). And this leads to another hornet's nest of confounded factors ripe for abuse. Stobart rails effectively against these as well. But didn't the educators and educational researchers at whom this book is directed, as well as most of the general public, know all this already?

The subtitle of this book is "The uses and abuses of assessment" and the book is full of insights into the abuses. Unfortunately for all of us, however, Stobart acknowledges the need for assessment, but he only dreams about how it might be better used.

Testing Times: The Uses and Abuses of Assessment

By Gordon Stobart

Routledge 224pp, £75.00

ISBN 9780415404747

Published 18 March 2008

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