A time in which national examinations have been cancelled is as good as any to raise some fundamental questions concerning how assessment, teaching and learning inter-relate.

Whilst there is no question that there is a place for testing students, the research literature shows clearly that beneficial testing occurs when it is able to inform future learning. Assessment for learning is a valuable tool in the teacher’s toolkit.

Conversely, we know all too well that assessment methods can come to dominate teaching, with the process of learning being too readily reduced to a matter of test preparation. The dreaded question ‘do we need to know this for the exam?’ is an understandable reaction on the part of students to the relentless quest to quantify performance at every stage but it is also a sign that all is not well with the relationship between teaching and assessment.

There are alternative possibilities. Some twenty years ago a group of like-minded educators set out to explore what could be done to put together a course that, whilst still rigorously assessed as part of the qualifications framework (as an AS Level), would allow scope for deeper learning, exploration of the student’s own questions, and investigation of the many fascinating questions that lie at the point where one discipline overlaps with another. The result was a pilot course in the history, philosophy and ethics of science which was assessed solely by means of a research project and oral presentation.

This course (‘Perspectives on Science’) served as a prototype for a subsequent, wider development, namely the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). The EPQ allows students to take a question of their own choosing, or a practical challenge, and follow a process of research, development and review, working with a teacher who acts in the role of a research supervisor. Its origins represent the deliberate creation of an alternative to the ‘learn the right answers for the next test’ model of learning. The best projects stem from open-ended questions or challenges and thus call for inquiry, critical thinking and creative exploration of a range of alternative possible responses to the central question or challenge.

Modelling as it does a mode of learning which had traditionally been more associated with higher education, it has come as no surprise that the EPQ has proven its value as a gateway qualification, recognised for its potential to help students progress to the next stage of their studies. Nor is the value of project-based learning solely to be found in its capacity for promoting independent research into academic subjects; projects have long had a significant association with vocational or technical learning, enabling school learning to come closer to workplace learning, and so facilitating the development of valuable skills for employability.

Where, then, do we stand, as we ask important questions about the future of assessment? A reflective response will recognise what is valuable in our current systems, whilst also taking cognisance of points for improvement, not least as a consequence of changes in the world, the most obvious one of which is the glaring exposure of an assessment system that is premised on the assumption that examinations during a brief synoptic assessment window can carry the majority of the weight of the grading process.

We should celebrate, then, our strengths. UK examinations are a strong brand, such that schools operating across the world may well choose them, or comparable international versions of them, for their own assessment purposes. Moreover, there has been a tradition of curriculum and qualifications innovation in the UK which has led to the successful creation and implementation of new models for teaching, learning and assessment, such as EPQ.

But we should also reflect on what we could do to counter-balance deficits. The issue is perhaps not so much one of ‘should we test?’ but rather: ‘are the assessment stakes too high?’ If we value the opportunity for deeper learning that stems from allowing scope for open-ended inquiry-based approaches, and consider that the skills developed in this setting are the very ones that young people will need to flourish in life and work in the modern world, we should look seriously at steps to reduce the weighting that attaches to examinations, and expand provision of alternative assessment models.

Obvious steps worth exploring here include a critical examination of the accountability matrix that schools labour under, an inquiry into whether alternative modes of learning and assessment, such as projects, can better equip learners with skills for the future, and reflection on the question of how best to engage learners who are simply not reached by a curriculum that focuses heavily on a small range of academic subjects.

We should also engage in a conversation with international partners. There is a growing sense, across the world, that ‘deeper learning’ now needs to be a priority. Future generations will not be well-served by a system that treats examination success as the be-all-and-end-all. We need a richer vision of the creative possibilities of alternative models of learning, teaching and assessment, coupled with serious thought about how to take these to scale at the national level. Now is as good a time as any for thoughtful re-assessment of assessment.

Dr John L. Taylor
Director of Learning, Teaching and Innovation
Cranleigh School