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Assessment – Vouching for Portfolios

March 19, 2011

This post is the result of a relatively extended twitter conversation between myself, @teachingofsci and @informed_edu. The initial impetus for the discussion was the announcement by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, that schools should be allowed to push their brightest students to skip GCSEs entirely and move onto A-Levels at 14.

The consensus was, that rather than push students into harder sets of exams – it would be better for students to deepen and broaden their areas of strength. This could be done by giving students opportunities to engage with global and community issues (perhaps using sites like Interrobang or We Are What We Do) rather than simply push them to go down the same road faster – incidentally, surely encouraging such broader participation would dovetail nicely with the promotion of a ‘Big Society’?

The main road block to opportunities for such exploratory learning is the pervasive mindset that everything that is taught and learned must be assessed, and that the majority of that assessment (in order to be valid and unbiased) must take place through public exams. In addition, the current scheme of modular exams poses a particular road block, as rather than giving students opportunities to more deeply explore issues, the emphasis is on a cycle of learn, prep, and test.

My suggestion to help with this was to set up computer based testing that was taken when ready, rather than at a set time of a public examination. This suggestion would also deal with one of the often quoted issues with computerized testing – the need for schools to have hundreds of dedicated machines that are available for the examination period, but unused the rest of the time. On an examine when ready basis, a school could have one suite of examination computers, and students would book their testing time when ready to take the tests for a particular module of study. In some ways, it is surprising that the government has not considered this possibility for testing, as this scheme has been used for testing Literacy, Numeracy and ICT skills for those seeking Qualified Teacher Status in England and Wales.

@informed_edu‘s suggestion then was to use portfolios to complement examination testing in order to assess a broader range of skills and competencies than those that can be assessed in an exam. He expands on his ideas for the scheme in this blog post. To summarize briefly, not only do exams limit the range of competencies that can be assessed, the ultimate assessment of student skills comes down to the students’ ability to perform in exams, rather than the particular skills and competencies that are meant to be being assessed. In thinking about how this plays out in the real world, he considers the chain of trust and vouching that takes place as people progress in their careers. To your first employer, the grades you took for an examination may be of interest, and perhaps to a second employer – by the time you get to your third employer, however, the chances are that the vouchsafing of your competencies and skills by your previous employers will be of far more interest to your new employer than any examination results you accrued. For students then, instead of examining their abilities, teachers would vouch for their students skills and competencies, as demonstrated through a student’s portfolio of work. Teachers in turn can also be vouched for by colleagues, professional development institutions, mentors and the like.

@teachingofsci pointed out a potential difficulty, where some teachers would then be faced with in excess of one hundred GCSE student portfolios to assess (a portfolio being far more work to assess than the current coursework requirement of Science GCSEs). My response to this is that firstly, the portfolios should be published online, and secondly, the assessment of these portfolios should be crowd sourced. Good portfolios will be vouched for by many professional educators, in addition to the other students. The value of a ‘vouching’ can be determined through several means: firstly through the social metrics of the network – ‘vouching’ for people who have a very long social distance from you will carry far more weight than vouching for people that are close to you (this should prevent abuse by closed vouching loops); secondly, the quality of the individual’s work (as assessed by other people’s vouches) could increase the weight given to that person’s vouches.

The transparency and openness of the system is important, not just to ensure that everyone is able to contribute to the network, but also so that any abuses of the system readily become apparent and can be rectified in order to produce the ideal outcomes. In many ways, this system replicates many features of Cory Doctorow‘s Whuffie in Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, as an attempt to give a metric to vouch for people that is non-exhaustible, while also building an online portfolio that will allow a student to be appraised based on their best work, not on what they were able to squeeze onto a page in some time between 45 minutes and 3 hours.

Finally, some concerns that could arise:

How could you prevent a student from being penalized just for being bad at social networking? I would say that this is where the professionalism of teachers would have to play a role – part of the system could ensure that portfolios that have generally been overlooked are flagged and promoted for review, in order to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to receive vouches that they deserve.

How is a teacher meant to keep track of all his/her students’ portfolios and offer formative feedback in order to help them improve? This could wind up being a massive burden – by requiring portfolios to be available online, the opportunities for formative feedback from a wide range of sources are much higher (for example, mentors from outside teaching – non-profit volunteers, business people, university faculty, could be engaged to act as mentors for portfolios – that’s the ‘Big Society’, right?) In addition, by shifting part of the burden of assessment away from exams more time would be freed up from revision classes, grading mock exams and the like to be available for ongoing formative assessment of student portfolios.

I think it is important to return to the point that started this whole discussion – the best way to challenge and stretch bright students is not to make them go the same route they would go anyway, only faster. While many bright students will enjoy the challenge of more complex material, we do them a great disservice if all that they ever learn is more content, and not a broader range of skills and competencies to help them to use that knowledge to great effect within society.

Many thanks to @teachingofsci and @informed_edu for the lively twitter discussion that prompted this blog post – I welcome comment and criticism below.

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From → Education, Politics

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