Assessment: Throw away the pen and paper

The concept of National Curriculum Levels has been with us for nearly 30 years, borne out of the 1987 Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT) chaired by Paul Black. I mention this not with any intention of persuading anyone of their merits but simply to place them in time.

And in school terms the time it places them in is that of pen and paper. There were a few computers around at the time, and whilst there may have been the odd one or two schools using a spreadsheet to run their assessment systems on it would probably have been Multiplan or Visicalc as the first Windows version of Excel (V2.05) only arrived in 1987. Computer-based assessment systems would have been the great exception rather than the rule.

So whilst I’m sure that Paul Black and his colleagues were completely focussed on the nature of assessment and how to meet the needs of all stakeholders it is clear that they were doing that thinking within a particular context. Not “What is the perfect system”, but rather “What is the best system we can achieve within the known constraints.”

I have written before about how innovation and change is often restricted by past constraints that we have internalised in our thinking about the world. So I have a small plea to make to the members of the newly formed Assessment Without Levels Commission.

It’s a simple request. I’d like the commission to keep at the front (rather than the back) of their minds what Sir Tim Berners-Lee has said:

“I want you to realize that, if you can imagine a computer doing something, you can program a computer to do that.*”

Don’t think in pen and paper terms. Don’t assume everything has to be numbers. Or letters. It can be anything. Don’t worry about how many different purposes an assessment might need to be used for. Stop thinking in two dimensions, stop thinking in black and white, and certainly stop thinking in terms of “what will the spreadsheet look like.”

Most schools now have the infrastructure to cope. Some may need some devices in order to capture data, but that would not be a huge cost for a school.

If you are unsure how data can be manipulated have a look at something like Google Analytics to see the range of data types that can be captured and visualised, the use of time based series of data and the drill-down capabilities.

And don’t worry about how the data will be processed. Do not underestimate the level of automation that can be applied. Anyone who has been following @oldandrewuk on his journey to re-blogging nirvana, via RSS, IFTTT and Feedburner will have seen what is possible with free to use generic services. Think what might be possible if the software was written specifically for a purpose.

This is not me trying to put the cart before the horse and look at how whatever data is captured will be used. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t matter what data is deemed to be useful, it will be possible to capture, store, process, aggregate, share, visualize and reuse it in whatever way is necessary.

Be bold. Throw away the pen and paper.