Teaching to the (right kind of) test - empowering curriculum and pedagogy

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend the latest ResearchEd National Conference held in London which brought together over 1500 researchers, teachers and policy makers. One of the early challenges on a day like this is to select which sessions to attend from the nearly 150 available. I was of course particularly interested in matters of assessment and was not disappointed by the presentations I attended. A particular issue that caught my attention was the ongoing challenge of assessment backwash which was discussed in a number or different ways.

What is assessment 'backwash'?

Assessment backwash (often referred to 'washback' just to confuse things) is sometimes understood as 'teaching to the test'. That is to say that the influence of an assessment is so great that it steers both matters of pedagogy and curriculum. A couple of speakers addressed this issue directly but from slightly different directions. Sam Freedman presented on his recent Institute for Government publication that takes a policy view on assessment, while Professor Beck Allen looked more closely at the school experience and the influence of assessment on knowledge architecture beliefs.

What's the problem?

The absolute nature of most current assessment dictates that underlying skills are assessed by breaking down contributing elements, particularly knowledge into ever smaller pieces. The backwash from this approach inevitably influences both curriculum and pedagogy. In doing so we can often lose the true value of a piece of work. While we can see this most readily in familiar performance spaces like art and sport, the same is true across the curriculum. A performance is not just the sum of the parts - it is more than that.

The answer? Think like a Connoisseur?

The British art historian Bendor Grosvenor has written extensively about Connoisseurship and its unique place in assessing the whole performance. While the frame of reference here is Fine Art, there are wider implications. When faced with the need to assess the 'whole', breaking things down into constituent parts inevitably loses the true value and essence of the performance.

But how do we assess holistically?

Taking an absolute approach to assessment, for example through the application of Rubrics, forces us to break down the whole performance into constituent parts. However, using a relative approach with Adaptive Comparative approach allows us to assess holistically. In doing it so it overcomes some of the key validity challenges.

So what?

Holistic approaches to assessment have a positive effect on both pedagogy and curriculum. 'Teaching to the Test' far from being seen as a negative approach, is instead seen as empowering for both instructors and learners. By doing this we are able to properly recognise the true value of performance rather than trying to artificially re-construct things through their constituent parts.

What next?

We think the need to assess holistically is an important one and continue to explore with our partners in a number of areas. If you are interested in joining us please get in touch.