The truth about school-based assessment

Published: Sunday | April 26, 2009



Photo by Michael Lee
Hervine Gibbons, visual arts teacher, prepares his fifth-formers for their school-based assessment (SBA).

Professor Stafford A. Griffith, Contributor

The representations about school-based assessment (SBA), in the examinations of the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) in particular, contained in three recent publications in The Gleaner have prompted me to share some information on the subject of SBA, which, I hope will help to clarify, and put in their proper perspective, the actions reportedly taken by some schools to optimise performance in SBAs.

On February 10, Gleaner staff reporter, Athaliah Reynolds, in an article headlined 'Wolmer's Boys targets ABCs of SBAs', quoted the headmaster of the school as saying that one strategy employed to get students to secure high SBA marks was to have them prepare drafts that are assessed by teachers and then returned to students, presumably for improvement before the final marks and grades are awarded.

Then, on March 20, E. Coleman in a letter to the editor published under the headline, 'More questions on paying teachers', made the statement that, "teachers sometimes have to write and rewrite SBAs for students, hence, teachers do a part of the exam for students".

Finally, on April 3, 2009, under the headline 'Abusing school-based assessment projects', Peter Maxwell considered the two aforementioned publications and expressed concerns about the level of confidence that can be placed in the assessment of students where there is an SBA component that is open to what he sees as abuses.

Good material

The three publications have provided good material for discussions among students taking a course, called Internal (School-Based) Assessment, that I teach. The course is offered in the Master of Education degree programme in educational measurement designed as part of the ongoing effort of the University of the West Indies to provide skills that are critical and in high demand to support educational reforms taking place in Jamaica and the rest of the region.

I wish to clarify at the outset that SBAs in CXC examinations require students to undertake specified assignments during the course of the school year, under the guidance of the subject teacher. The teacher is, in fact, required to take on the dual role of instructor and final assessor. This sometimes presents a dilemma for the less-experienced teacher and often creates uneasiness among parents and other stakeholders in the education process.

Differences in the nature and magnitude of teacher inputs into the SBA work of students may unfairly overcompensate some students while unfairly penalising others. At one extreme are teachers who may treat the SBA assignment very much like an external examination. In these circumstances, the student is required to undertake the assignment without any teacher guidance and the role of the teacher is reduced merely to the assessment of the finished product. At the other extreme are teachers who may, unwittingly or otherwise, end up doing much of the assignment for the student by virtue of the nature and magnitude of the inputs that they provide. In such instances, the finished product would not reflect the level at which the student is able to perform should he or she be asked to undertake a similar task.

A proper understanding of the line of demarcation between the teacher's role in guiding the student in SBA and his or her role in assessing the student's achievement is needed so as to avoid improper action on the part of teachers and to allay the concerns of parents and the wider community about SBA. Teachers and other stakeholders need to understand where the line should be drawn between what is fair and what is unfair. This requires an understanding of the difference between the role of the teacher in formative and summative assessment of SBA.

Distinguishing between formative and summative assessment of SBA

SBA brings assessment and teaching together for the benefit of the student and provides the teacher with the opportunity to participate in a unique way in the assessment process that leads to the final grade obtained by his or her student. In SBA, therefore, teaching and assessment are both undertaken by the school, or, more precisely, by the class teacher. SBA has both a formative and a summative assessment component.

Formative assessment involves the collection of evidence about the progress being made by students and using this evidence as feedback to improve both teaching and learning. Formative assessment has, therefore, been characterised as assessment for learning as distinct from summative assessment that is characterised as assessment of learning

The misinformed teacher or stakeholder may incorrectly regard teacher input into SBA as unfair. On the contrary, teacher input in guiding students on a continuous basis is necessary and legitimate for SBA assignments. This input must not be regarded as cheating; it is not. It is part of formative assessment of SBA which should be distinguished from summative assessment in which the teacher is also involved.

In the same way as the teacher is expected to provide guidance to the student in ensuring that there is a clear understanding of the requirements of the external examination and to assist in optimising student learning for such an examination, so too, for the internal or SBA component, the teacher must provide the relevant guidance to the student to ensure that there is a proper understanding of what is required and to assist the student to perform optimally on the SBA task.

Learning journey

While formative assessment provides the teacher and student with information that guides learning, summative assessment provides information that may be used to draw conclusions about how well a student has attained the learning targets. Summative assessment is concerned with student achievement at the end of a period of instruction and becomes part of a student's record of achievement. It is concerned with reporting how far the student has reached at the end of the learning journey.

Some teachers and schools follow a practice of reviewing the completed SBA assignment submitted by a student, and returning it with suggestions for improvement. The assignment is then refined by the student and resubmitted.

If the review were intended to provide feedback to assist the student in improving his or her proficiency in undertaking the SBA task, this would fall well within the boundaries of formative assessment and could not be regarded as unfair. However, the issue of unfair practice would arise if the student were allowed an opportunity to undertake further work on the SBA after it was submitted for summative assessment following a period of guidance by the teacher. It would amount to unfair practice, too, if comments provided by the teacher were not designed to help in improving the proficiency of the student, but merely to improve the product to justify the award of higher marks or grades.

There are, therefore, good grounds for questioning the fairness of the approach often used by some teachers for awarding marks for the assignment after it had been completed by the student, then permitting the student to resubmit the same assignment based on modifications made by the teacher for the purpose of awarding higher marks or grades. Such practice may well arise out of a lack of understanding of where the line should be drawn between formative assessment and the summative assessment.

While a public examination board such as CXC encourages the use of formative assessment in helping to optimise student learning and achievement in SBA, the ultimate interest of such a board is in knowing the level of achievement of the student. The marks awarded for SBA must be a reliable representation of a student's level of achievement and must reflect what the student knows and can do. Marks should, therefore, be based purely on the level of proficiency achieved by the student. If the student is asked to undertake a similar task, without teacher guidance, he or she should be able to achieve marks or grades similar to those awarded by the teacher.

The limitations of moderation of SBA marks and grades

Moderation of the marks awarded by teachers for SBA is often cited as a means of addressing issues of equity and fairness by making adjustments, where necessary, to bring marks or grades back in line with the standards of the public examination board.

The CXC moderation exercise involves the use of a CXC appointed moderator to remark a sample of assignments previously marked by the class teacher. The marks of the moderator are compared with those of the teacher and the relationship between the two sets of marks statistically established. If the results are not satisfactory, an adjustment is made to all marks awarded by the teacher to bring them in line with the CXC standard.

Equitable practice

The moderation exercise is concerned with the work submitted. Once the marks awarded by the teacher for the assignment are in keeping with the CXC standards, no adjustment would be required and the council is not likely, without cause, to investigate the classroom practice that led to the quality of an assignment in the sample moderated.

Under the circumstances, the council depends on the teacher to follow fair and equitable practice. But this would not be possible if the teacher failed to draw the line between formative and summative assessment of SBA.

I trust that a consideration of these basic points would allow the teacher and the wider public to make more informed judgements about the fairness and propriety of SBA practices encountered. I trust, also, that it will help to develop an awareness of how existing practices may be improved and enhanced to assure the integrity of this important component of the CXC examinations.

Professor Stafford A. Griffith is chair, research measurement and evaluation, at the Institute of Education, UWI, Mona. Feedback may be sent to column@gleanerjm.com