The Culture of Assessment and its Alternatives – Chris Shute

Chris Shute was prompted after reading John Taylor Gatto to hold forth on assessment. He does so in his own inimitable and readable style. This extended article will be published in a future CPE-PEN Journal next year.

Whilst reviewing John Taylor Gatto’s book, ‘Weapons of Mass Instruction’ I was struck by his vehemence against all kinds of tests and exams. They encourage dishonesty, he asserted, they are anti-educational and embitter the whole process of learning, which should be joyful, and conducted with freedom and enthusiasm. Having submitted to the rigours of public examinations several times in a long life, with varying success, I must admit to having at times accepted the good sense of the argument that since I wouldn’t accept being operated on by a surgeon who had never passed an exam in surgery, or flown by a pilot who had never had his ability to fly formally tested, I must accept that children who are going to become adults in a world in which entrance to the majority of serious, well-paid jobs and professions is sanctioned by exams and tests, must go through similar experiences when they are young. However, I have looked again at the whole question of assessment, and I have come to some radical conclusions with which Mr. Gatto would probably agree.

Our culture places a great deal of emphasis on convenient analogies: children ‘have to learn’ that when they are grown up they won’t be able to do everything they want to do, so we need to impose a lot of irksome restrictions on them when they are young; they will be required to arrive at work on time, so we make a fetish of punctuality; they may have to wear special clothes, so we impose school uniform on them. The only point at which we part company with that mode of thinking is when we call the tasks we force upon our schoolchildren ‘work’, but refuse to pay them for doing it….

We have developed a culture which has no place in it for individual children, with private mentalities, potentialities, points of view and capabilities. We have no time for children who develop slowly, who refuse to construct their minds according to patterns which we value and appreciate, and particularly who reject our narrow cultural obsessions in fields such as speech, music, clothing, manners or religion. Without necessarily intending consciously to do so, I would claim that one of the fundamental purposes of testing and examinations is to prescribe the boundaries of learning, to prevent young minds from deviating from the norms established by those who assume that they have to define what is ‘good’ knowledge and what is not. Every exam and test we set in our schools is an attempt to answer the question: ’Is this candidate learning the things we want him or her to learn? Is he or she fitting into the pattern of thought and even prejudice which we have established for them as an obligatory corpus of learning?’ I have come to question whether that is a worthwhile goal for any educator.

I imagine that the originators of the exam system would say that they were trying to achieve two partly contrary aims: to enable the student to measure success in his or her studies, and to maintain a bench-mark level of attainment in the subject of the exam. Both of these aims can be justified in terms of public policy, but I should find it hard to make a case for the value of exams and tests in the education of individual people. The outcome of a sensitively conducted education might be vivid, rich and engaging, but it is far less likely to be predictable, based exclusively on a curriculum established by exterior Authorities. People who have been educated otherwise than in school often reveal themselves to be dynamic, capable of thinking outside the box created by convention. I knew a young man, home-educated, whom I worked with for some years. I taught him the basics of computing including elementary programming, about which I was pretty vague myself, and, at his request, we used his Star Trek figurines to make little films, using a video camera, which he scripted with my help. We swanned about the galaxy solving problems like how to show weightlessness and ray-guns, and when a film was finished we had a premiere, with speeches and dressing formally. The point of the story is not that the finished product was particularly good – it wouldn’t have won any prizes or passed any exams – but rather that the young man in question went on to create a successful computer business and also learned to be a videographer and recorded weddings to a high standard, to which I can testify because he showed me his work. He began as a child, playing with ideas, and because no-one told him his work wasn’t ‘good’ enough, or of a high enough standard, he felt free to reactivate his childhood enthusiasms when his intellectual development had caught up with his imagination. The truth is we require far too much sophistication of our young people at precisely the age at which they need to be free to chase dreams and live in a world of imagination. The intellectual mechanisms which govern the development of young minds are demonstrably out of harmony with our system of teaching and assessment. What is worse, we have allowed to develop an idea that certain exams, taken at the end of the years of schooling, are an infallible indicator of a young person’s potential. To ‘fail’ them is seen as the end of all aspiration. The result, particularly of GCSE and A level exams, is often treated as the glue which sticks a person irremovably to the social ladder.

My experience with home-educated children leads me in a very different direction. Under my tutelage, and that of their parents I have seen young people take their own lives in hand, get through the traumas of adolescence, and prepare themselves for whichever exams they happen to need for their chosen career. They had no particular problems with exams because they had chosen to take them, and saw them as means to an end, rather than as an end in themselves. Furthermore, if they happened to ‘fail’ any of them they shrugged their shoulders, did a bit more study, and took the exam again. It wasn’t the end of the world, just a blip on life’s radar.

Having been moderately scathing about exams, I should perhaps propose a few alternatives. Clearly we need some indication of a young person’s potential ability to do certain things as an adult. However, I would suggest that the present format of most examinations reflects almost none of the ordinary requirements of a modern job or profession. The tasks the candidates have to perform are unknown before the exam. This favours the candidate whose knowledge of the subject is compendious. Young polymaths do exist, of course, but the purpose of exams should be, I contend, not to reveal the exceptional people., but rather to establish the ability of each student. Therefore, the examiner ought to give the candidate a clear idea of the precise task he or she will be required to perform. He should abandon the campaign to keep the exam secret, the feverish concern to prevent the candidates ‘cheating’, that is, finding out what questions or tasks will set for the candidates so that they could prepare a good response. That might well be a valid aim for examiners who need to find out whether a person could be trusted to fly an aeroplane or carry out an operation: on the other hand, an adolescent needs to have an opportunity to display the full range of his or her ability, without pressure or mystification. One way to achieve that good end might be to allow the candidates to perform the same task several times, commenting on the result each time, and allowing them to try again and again to attain competence. The candidates would see themselves improving, and become intimately aware of the details and subtleties of the project. They could watch themselves improving, coming closer to success, and this would encourage them. There would be no decline in ‘standards’ because the candidates would still have to perform at a recognised level, but they would have as many attempts as they needed to reach that level.

Another possible assessment of candidates’ ability might be arrived at by allowing them to draw up a dossier or portfolio of their work. The tutor could give his or her most candid assessment of each element of the work, then the student could decide whether to include it in the final collection. This method is already used in some exams, where the work to be assessed cannot be done in the space of three or four hours – art, for instance – by where pressure of time can be imposed it is presently seen as somehow virtuous to impose it. Has anyone ever thought why, precisely, we think it appropriate to force candidates for exams to produce their work in a specific, and relatively short space of time? Is it for any other reason than that exams have to made rigorous and stressful so that candidates approach them with due respect and even awe? Certainly, none of the restrictions which go with present-day exams serve any practical or educational purpose, beyond convincing some candidates that they ‘can’t do’ exams, and shouldn’t even try.

There is much more to be said about exams and the harm they do than I have space for, but at least we can start a debate. Such a debate is long overdue in an educational climate where there is increasing competition for university places coupled with a widening variety of courses and learning methods.

Chris Shute

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