Changing education (part four)

Changing education (part four)

4: It all adds up

So far I’ve looked at the systemic failure of our current system, explored some of the external and internal pressures demanding radical change, and suggested what that change might begin to look like. In this final part I’ll consider the influence of formal exams and the need for a different approach.

What you measure is what you get

There’s an old truth that what you measure is what you get, which is to say that examination systems can themselves introduce counter-productive bias. If you put a premium on narrow academic performance then you will skew the rest of the system around it.

This is not about dumbing down; quite the reverse. It’s about asking much more rigorously whether how we test is fit for purpose, which in turn means asking more seriously what the purpose is.

Consider this: if I was managing a call centre I could decide to raise productivity by setting tighter targets for call duration (so agents were under pressure to end each call within say two minutes). You’d probably see a rise in the number of calls handled every hour and might feel you could congratulate yourself, but in doing this it’s likely that you have damaged customer satisfaction. A narrow goal arising from the functioning of the call centre has blinded you to the real purpose of that centre. Similarly in education, if you’re going to emphasise narrow academic achievement you need to ask yourself about the value of everything else that you’re ignoring.

Clearly there are subject areas where you would want to know that a student had the necessary knowledge to move on to the next level, but even here there are many different ways of assessing that knowledge. Traditional formal exams generally test the ability to deploy recent intensively-learned information under pressure. That skill in itself isn’t particularly useful, though I’d accept it has proved itself to have some value when assessing a student’s ability to follow a traditional degree qualification. But there are other ways to get to the assessment, ways that might be more accurate (after all traditional exams are susceptible to intensive coaching, which again reinforces the class bias of the system).

External exams start from a worthwhile ambition to achieve some kind of objectivity in assessment, but again the kind of judgements that get made may be misleading. Two students falling close to either side of a grade boundary will appear to have achieved different grades when in fact their performances were broadly similar. In some ways this is inevitable, but equally it’s probably unnecessary. If the purpose of education is to enable students to develop their skills, then certification needs to focus on demonstrable competence rather than hoop jumping abilities. Internal assessment is likely to be more accurate here than external. It can be made as reliable as any other professional assessment by removing the distorting pressure that comes from correlating teaching competence with pupil performance (abolishing our practically meaningless school league tables would be a good start).

In other words if the purpose of the assessment is look at the strengths and weaknesses of the student, with a view to helping that student rather than pinning a grade on him or her then it’s likely to be more helpful and real. This assessment and certification should be there to help the student move through the modular options of this much wider and more flexible curriculum. The clear purpose of the system should be to prepare its students for the next stage of their lives, whether that means a degree course, further technical training, or direct employment. Students at that stage should be able to present a portfolio of their completed modules and from it build a statement about who they are and what they can do. This could be more meaningful (and useful across a wider range of contexts) than the current system of personal statements required for university entrance, which itself has proved necessary to supplement the commodification of exam performance.

If tutors themselves are not judged against a crude exam performance (let alone having the college’s funding linked to it, as happens at the moment in further education) then those tutors will have no reason to distort their assessments. They can stay focused on the student and his or her real needs. It’s true this means trusting the professionalism of the tutors, but that’s what we usually do with professionals. It’s hard to think of any other area of working life where government ministers and their civil servants feel so entitled to wade into areas where they have neither the professional competence nor the imagination to judge what’s in front of them.

I’d go further and say it’s a sign of how far the current examination system is broken that a first degree has become itself commodified. I don’t believe that this is because those exams have become “dumbed down”, but because what they measure is no longer helpful to potential employers or higher educators. We need a more robust (and broader) understanding of what we mean by competence in the real conditions of our society, and we need to remove an assessment system which is not serving it.

We might then begin to reconstruct an education system designed to give that competence in all its varied forms to all of our children.

I started by saying that this piece is a provocation, not a blueprint. But for once the devil is not in the detail. The devil is in a wholesale failure of vision, a stupefying failure to consider that a changing world might need changing ideas. I’m not suggesting that I have all the answers. What I have in reality are some pretty angry questions, and they need answers. If you have your own ideas it would be great to hear them. If you think these ideas are worth discussion, then please share and spread the word.