BEGINNING WITH THE END IN MIND: A NEW APPROACH IN ASSESSMENT

 

Ananda Kumar Palaniappan

 

 

 

 

INTRODUCTION

Assessment in schools has always been a topic of contention especially with regard to whether the present system of assessment reflects the actual potential of students. Recent events relating to unemployment and the inability of college and university graduates to solve problems and to adapt to the changes in the environment have prompted both the government and the educational institutions to reconsider the current approaches of assessment. Many views for and against the various approaches of assessment have been put forward with the aim of humanizing assessment - an approach that takes into account  the individual differences among students and caters for the identification as well as the optimal development of students’ potential. So far, government policies and regulations appear to feature dominantly in deciding which assessment approach will be adopted in schools. However, there is clear trend in recent years where views and suggestions have been put forward not only by educators but also the government and policy makers on the need to “de-stress” and decentralize the formal examination component of assessment to make assessment more authentic and better reflect the actual potential and performance of students. This does not mean doing away with the formal examination completely but reducing the weightage given to better reflect the students’ potential.

 

PROBLEMS WITH CURRENT ASSESSMENT APPROACH

Assessment today, unfortunately, is seen to drive instruction (Linn 1987) and this is evidenced by the “gerak gempur” or skill and drill approach practised in most schools in Malaysia today. It is also found that what gets assessed is what gets taught (O’Day & Smith 1993). Under increasing pressure from parents and education departments to produce excellent results, more and more teachers are beginning to teach to the tests. Gaining creative and critical thinking skills to become effective problem-solvers is no longer the main objective of instruction. Acquiring as many as possible has been the main objective since this guarantees placement in prestigious universities and places of employment.  More and more graduates who are churned out by institutions find it increasingly difficult to secure or keep jobs that now require higher cognitive skills and other competencies. Communication and other soft skills including social skills relating to the ability to work collaboratively as well as having an inquisitive and inquiring mind appear to feature prominently in the list of criteria employers set today.  Schools are entrusted to help students discover and develop their talents and potential (Campbell 1997). Unless schools and institutions of higher learning prepare students to fit these requirements, unemployment rate will increase and schools will be deemed to have failed in their mission. Since what gets tested is what gets taught, assessment has a bigger role to play in transforming today’s educational environment especially in the areas of policy formulation and implementation as well as in curriculum development and instruction.

 

BEGINNING WITH THE END IN MIND

Often, strategies and approaches are better designed if one is clear about the required end result. The National Education Philosophy (1988) which was formulated after thorough thought was given with respect to the Malaysian educational vision is an excellent guide to formulate strategies and approaches. This philosophy places great emphasis on creating a Malaysian citizenry with holistic intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual development. With this end in mind, assessments in schools need to be structured such that these aspects are given due emphasis. All educational policies are aimed at enhancing optimal intellectual development amongst students but not all have been successfully implemented. Curriculum initiatives undertaken by the Curriculum Development Center (CDC) to enhance thinking skills are indeed commendable but the implementation of these initiatives which requires the concerted effort of all parties has somewhat fallen short of expectation. Physical development initiatives in schools can be said to be well planned but certain areas are not assessed adequately to initiate remedial work or to sustain efforts to enhance performance. For example, very rarely does one hear of students being given extra coaching in short putt after the annual sports event or in drama or singing after the competition is over. Instead, very sporadic efforts have been expended towards enhancing emotional development in the classroom. While moral and spiritual development have been incorporated in the school curriculum, there are no valid assessments aimed at identifying and initiating additional programmes for those in need of further help. Hence, it is imperative that assessment be given a new meaning and approach to set in motion initiatives that sustain efforts to develop individuals in all areas.

 

Assessment as a Means not an End

Although a variety of assessment approaches are still widely used in grading and categorizing students based on their performances, there is a growing realization that assessment should be used more to facilitate learning and skills development as well as to diagnose areas that need further remedial work or enhancement of students’ potential. More educators are looking at assessment as a way to motivate students to perform better in subsequent assessments as well as prepare students for self-directed and lifelong learning. The rationale for these views is that assessments are beginning to take the fun out of learning. Students are learning just for the examinations. There is too much rote learning and examinations are just reinforcing this behaviour. Studies have shown that problems such as truancy, high drop-out rates and crimes in schools are to a certain extent consequences of these rigid traditional testing and assessment procedures. Assessment when used to diagnose areas of weaknesses and to develop remedial instruction to facilitate mastery of content and skills tends to build confidence among students and enhance their self-efficacy and self-esteem. When used as a motivator it tends to help prevent truancy, reduce the drop-out rate and overcome discipline problems. Based on these findings, it is proposed that assessment be transformed to incorporate a more humanistic modality serving the following functions:  (a) diagnostic, (b) remedial / enhancement, and (c) motivation. To operationalise this, assessment can take place in the following areas with different approaches thus giving instructors greater flexibility. These may be categorized as areas and approaches. Areas refer to content, skills (e.g.  communication, music and ICT skills), level of motivation, attitude, changes in thinking, values and personality development as well as competencies and abilities inherent in the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Approaches refer to paper and pencil, interviews, portfolio, school based assessment including teacher observation, parent and peer ratings. Based on these two aspects of assessment, various forms of approaches for assessment can be designed to provide a more holistic picture of the students’ abilities and competencies. Areas of assessment are crucial in that they should be comprehensive and encompass all relevant areas in which the students should be assessed. Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences affords a comprehensive model to assess these areas of student potential and competencies. For example, when assessing a content area in Biology, the initial assessment may adopt the diagnostic approach at the beginning of the term using the Paper and Pencil approach. Input from this may be used to design classroom instruction and activities to address students’ weaknesses and enhance their strengths. Ongoing informal classroom assessment aimed at studying how students are improving can also incorporate aspects of motivation so that students are encouraged to do their best. Similarly, when assessing skill-based competencies like communication skills, leadership skills or skills relating to the performing arts, initial assessment may take the form of observations where teachers, parents and even peer ratings are used. Having identified areas of weakness and strength, remedial and enhancement strategies can be planned based on ongoing formative assessments which can also be designed to enhance students’ motivation to continue doing their best. When assessing personal characteristics such as attitude, motivation, perception and values, teachers may start with observations and short interviews to gain some insights into the students’ background. Based on the information gathered, classroom activities can be designed to address any anomalies in these areas and changes are recorded. Subsequent interventions are planned based on the recorded information and assessment. This iterative approach which is similar to Action Research may help teachers enhance motivation and correct undesirable attitudes and perceptions. Based on these considerations, a structured and comprehensive model of assessment for each student for each subject would help in identifying the student’s strength and weakness.

 

Quality of Assessment

While it is advocated that assessment should place less emphasis on the traditional examination approach, the quality and accuracy of assessment inherent in the traditional measures should be maintained or even enhanced in school-based assessment. Various aspects of assessment need to be considered to ensure quality of assessment. Omrod (2006) suggests the RSVP approach which stands for Reliability, Standardization, Validity and Practicality. In all assessment approaches, RSVP can be applied to ensure accurate and authentic assessment. For reliability, it is important to ensure that similar results are obtained regardless of who the assessor is (inter-rater reliability). This is ensured by using a very objective, detailed and structured checklist that makes it easier to assess. To further ensure its consistency or stability, several assessments are made over a period or after a lapse of some time (test-retest reliability). Standardization is also important for non-traditional assessment.  Since many schools with different assessors will be involved in the assessment, authenticity is ensured by standardizing the instructions, time and resources allocated. Validity is normally enhanced for non-traditional assessment since it is carried out without any time constraints and in situations resembling the actual situations or scenario. Hence, the assessment results accurately measure the actual potential of the students. As for practicality, it is important that these non-traditional performance based approaches of assessment are practical and easily carried out. However this is not always the case (Hambleton 1996). Assessments of performances are always time-consuming and expensive. However, they are still carried out because the benefits outweigh the expenses involved.  To these four criteria, it is important to add one more criterion, authenticity. It addresses the issue: To what extent does the assessment assess skills and knowledge that are similar to the one the students will encounter in the real world? The ability to transfer knowledge and skills from the classroom to the outside world is the ultimate aim of education. Hence, an assessment of this ability is crucial to indicate the relevance and the appropriateness of the education   received.

 

Humanizing Assessment Reporting

Assessment reports should lead to educational improvement. A narrative report helps communicate the results and the interpretation effectively. It should not only indicate the level of performance of the individual in the various areas but also customize the report to each individual by indicating how he or she should be able to improve. Hence, assessment reports should aim at providing suggestions for individuals on how they can overcome weaknesses and enhance strengths. The reports should be self-explanatory and provide other teachers and parents with information on not only the strengths and weaknesses of the students but also offer suggestions on what remedial and enrichment activities are most appropriate and how these may be carried out. Such detailed assessment reports will better cater for the individual’s future needs.

 

CONCLUSION

Humanizing assessment involves addressing students’ individual differences as well as identifying and optimally enhancing their potential. Aspects where changes need to be made include information or characteristics of the end result of the whole process of education - beginning with the end in mind. Based on this, courses of studies  and classroom activities are planned around these characteristics. Planning also should take into account the holistic development of individuals and at the same time consider the individual differences and needs. For the school-based assessment, teachers should be given the responsibility to ascertain factors or criteria based on Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and other current requirements as well as the aspects that should be emphasized both in the teaching and assessment process. Assessment of performance should not be aimed at grading or labeling students but identifying areas for remedial as well as enrichment work in subsequent classroom activities. One humanistic approach of assessment may be based on the Function and Area assessed.  Assessment reports should focus on suggestions for overcoming students’ weaknesses and enhancing their strengths.

 

REFERENCES

Campbell, L. (1997) How teachers interpret MI theory. Educational Leadership  55, 1,, 14-19.

Hambleton, R. K. (1996) Advances in assessment models, methods, and practices. In

Berliner, D. C.  & Calfee, R. C.  (Eds.) Handbook of Educational Psychology. Macmillan, New York.

Linn, R. (1987) Accountability: The comparison of educational systems and the quality of test results. Educational Policy 1, 2, 181-198.

Ministry of Education of Malaysia (1988) National Education Philosophy Report. Govt. of  Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur.

Omrod, J. E. (2006) Educational Psychology: Developing Learners. Pearson, Upper Saddle River, NJ.

O’Day, J. A., & Smith, M. (1993) Systemic school reform and educational opportunity. In Fuhrman, S.  (Ed.), Designing Coherent Educational Policy: Improving the System (pp. 250-311). Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.