We assess what we value and we value what we assess
Over the past few weeks our VCE students have been conducting their final examinations. I have been enormously impressed by the positivity, focus and purpose demonstrated by this year’s students who have been challenged in so many ways throughout 2020. Nonetheless, our students seem to be studying hard, completing many practice exams and striving to implement their teachers’ feedback and suggestions.
While in so many ways this year has been different, it strikes me that the Class of 2020 will predominantly be completing assessments that are comparable to those that their parents would have undertaken a generation before. Those who have grandparents who attended school in Australia are completing similar tasks to that of two generations before.
While some of the mathematics examinations make use of different calculators which would not have been available, across many other subject areas the look and feel of the required tasks are not exceedingly different and rely on similar skillsets as was the case fifty plus years ago. If I were to ask a parent or grandparent who had matriculated in an Australian school to describe their examinations so many elements would be the same. They would, no doubt, refer to a large silent room with individual tables organised into uniform rows, invigilators seated in front and a clock overhead ensuring that the students completed the handwritten tasks in time.
To place this in some context, I imagine that if we were to conduct a holistic comparison of our current Year 12s’ daily lives with that of their grandparents at a similar age, there would be far more differences than similarities. Approaches to diet, health, leisure, economics, exercise, entertainment, relationships and spirituality would highlight remarkable developments aided by shifting social values, attitudes and technologies.
If you were to ask our current graduating class if they would expect their grandchildren would be assessed in timed handwritten examinations in similar conditions, I suspect that they would rightfully reject this as a highly unlikely notion.
The focus of my discussion so far has been on the manner of assessment and not on the more substantive matters of what it is that we are teaching. That said, it is an educational truism that we assess what we value and we value what we assess. It seems that the nature of Victoria’s examination system has always favoured strong writing skills and the ability to present understanding under timed conditions. While there are certainly equity-based reasons to attempt to establish a level playing field through creating common conditions to undertake assessments, the emphases of these assessments seem to favour traditional skillsets over those which educational experts suggest are so vital in the contemporary workplace.
The VCE is both a ranking and competency-based system that compels students to demonstrate their capacities to a required standard and then ranks them based on their performance in both school-based and externally assessed tasks. The end-of-year examinations are prioritised as they are considered an objective means through which to rank the students and also to verify school-based performance.
The perceived narrowness of the system’s focus is why many tertiary institutions are looking beyond the ATAR as a means of admission. Through utilising interviews, portfolios and project-based applications, some universities are able to consider other areas of a student’s development – their oral communication skills, creative and flexible thinking, volunteering and work experience and social and emotional awareness that are likely to augment their successes in the world that they will graduate into.
I suspect that the headlines suggesting that “the ATAR is dead” are highly premature. Further, I worry that a rush to alternatives can violate the integrity of our assessments and end up ‘dumbing down’ the system. However, I do think it is time to embrace meaningful change that balances the needs for an efficient and equitable system with the need to emphasise a broader and more relevant skills base than is currently prioritised. I do believe that future generations of students will consider the exam hall with its associated components a quaint relic of a distant past.