Polonius: What do you read my lord.
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
I have been reading some blogs about assessment. They explain, as if it is a new idea, that standards are often best defined, agreed and shared by reference to actual examples of students’ work rather than by written lists of criteria. It is true that the obsession with written descriptors of standards, grades, levels etc. has often been exceedingly naive in both development and application. I think that the accompanying evolution, and unbiquitous use, of spreadsheets, data and targets has further undermined the intellectual integrity and practical value of criteria driven ‘assessment’.
But, I have been as quilty as anyone, actually more than most, of creating lists of criteria which have sought to define common expectations and standards. I had been doing it, in all key stages, with QCA and other agencies for 30 years. However, throughout that time most of us involved realised that what we were doing, was not defining standards/expectations/levels, per se but modelling the assessment conversation that teachers would have with other teachers and students as they considered real students’ work. The words themselves were always meaningless until they were placed in the context of real students’ achievement. The standards are realised in the work rather than the descriptors. This seems now, as it did, then simply self evident. What went horribly wrong was that this basic recognition of the role of written criteria in assessment – especially in art – was not accompanied by a health warning written in large letters ‘THIS IS MEANINGLESS UNTIL IT IS OFFERED UP TO YOUR STUDENTS’ WORK AND ACHIEVEMENT’.
What should have been an example of the vocabulary and process of critical discourse and judgement became too often a facile and forlorn attempt to label children with vague and unrefined words set out in a simplistic hierarchy. One suspects that, in most cases, children were intuitivly rank ordered and the labels applied in retrospect.
It is a tragedy that we were not more successful in developing informed and sensitive assessment which takes into account the quality of responses across the range and breadth of expectations. After all a lot of work was done in the name of assessment. The lists of criteria/levels/grades should have been valuable in providing a commonly understood framework for assessment which ensured that all aspects of the subject were considered. They could also indicate how the qualities of different work could be described and compared. In and of themselves they did not really define ‘standards’.
The fact that the lists were subsequently deployed in so many facile ways has undermined the quality, integrity and value of assessment in our subject. The evidence for this is easily found in the current grade criteria and practice of today’s GCE, GCSE examinations. Perhaps the real tragedy is that everyone colludes with an almost meaningless system because it is easiest not to rock the boat or shout about the emperor’s clothes.