Why School-Based Assessment is Inevitable

Yesterday I was giving a lecture on ultrafiltration where I derived a mathematical equation for the time required to ultrafilter a solution – I know, exciting stuff. I’ve been doing this problem for years. The thing about this equation is that it can’t be solved with simple algebra – you have to use an approximate method known as numerical integration. Now if you are to do this by hand it’s a laborious, time-consuming process. So in the past I used to simply put the integral aside and resort to an empirical approximation that could be implemented in a couple of minutes on a calculator. It was all very unsatisfying.

Now, however, my students can just go to WolframAlpha.com and solve the integral – more or less exactly – with one line of very simple code. It makes the whole process of deriving the equation much more meaningful. The point is that it makes absolutely no sense for me to examine this topic by a pen-and-paper final exam. That would be to examine obsolete methods. It is far better to use continuous assessment in which students can use their computers or whatever advanced tools are appropriate to their discipline. So point number 1 is the following:

  1. Advances in technology make continuous assessment essential because new technologies change disciplines.

The second aspect to this issue is that I can mark this type of quantitative assessment completely impartially and objectively. So point number 2 is

  1. Continuous assessment can contain elements that can be marked in a completely objective way.

Yesterday I also had a long discussion with one of my final year students. She was having a lot of difficulty putting her lab report together and it took a good deal of my time to get her to a place where the report would be of a decent standard. When I mark her report, however, I will take into account the amount of help I have given her. She may produce a report that is 2.1 standard but only because of my considerable input. Marking this report is then a fairly nuanced process. Likewise when I examine my five final year research theses I will not only assess what appears on the written page but also make an assessment of how well the student performed in actually carrying out the project. So point number 3 is

  1. The best person to assess project work is the teacher.

So what about the plagiarism issue? Worries about plagiarism assume that the work done towards a continuously assessed assignment will be done off-site, i.e., at home where all sorts of input from parents, siblings and friends will totally undermine the academic integrity of the process. But who says project work has to happen at home? Can it not happen as part of active learning in the classroom (with obvious resource implications)? So point number 4 is:

  1. Project work can be done in class, free of the effects of plagiarism.

But then you might say that it is simply impossible to be completely objective about essay-type or project-type work. Marks will be challenged by students and irate parents. Perhaps they will but at third level marks are now routinely challenged by students, if not parents. It’s a healthy development. A simple way of preparing for this is to have a second-reader system and perhaps some oversight by external examiners. So point 5 is:

  1. There are well established ways of dealing with subjectivity in marking.

I think teachers need to buy into school-based assessment but they should do so on the basis that practitioners will have a central role in the design of new syllabi. The experience in the UK is that when curriculum design is left to the education theorists it leads to the proliferation of faddish, un-validated modes of teaching, with a strong, ideology-driven tendency to favour method and process of over knowledge and skill. This has led to widespread discontent in the teaching profession there.

School-based assessment is going to happen and the sooner teachers get involved the better.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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13 Responses to Why School-Based Assessment is Inevitable

  1. bealoideas says:

    “There are well established ways of dealing with subjectivity in marking.”

    That simply is not the case. Study after study has shown that assessment is biased by sex, colour and personal relationships. Blind assessment is always fairer. Its always more objective.

    The debate is not whether continuous assessment in schools has something to offer. This is accepted already, as the presence of project work testifies. The debate is whether a combination is best.

  2. Greg Foley says:

    Now i’m confused. You’re saying that assessment, except where it’s anonymous, is fundamentally compromised by inherent biases, in which case there is a (major?) question mark hanging over the third level system. (I would vehemently disagree by the way with the notion that we are unable to assess our own students fairly and robustly – with proper oversight of course.) Yet, secondary school teachers are currently willing to mark project work in some subjects (do they assess their own students?). Yet the union is suggesting that there is a point of principle involved in this whole dispute and the only option is zero school-based assessment – for the sake of academic integrity Now you say that it’s only an issue to do with the best CA-exam combination? Or are you?

    What is this dispute about? Seriously. If it’s a workload thing then I’d be completely sympathetic to the cause but I think the union is not setting out a clear case at all.

    • bealoideas says:

      I am not teacher so I won’t speak for them but here is my two cents. There two issues
      anonymous vs teacher assessed work
      continuous assessment vs terminal exams.

      Anonymous terminal exams are far the fairest and least subjective form of assessment. Continuous assessment has flaws such as fairness issues but it has advantages too as its a more real world scenario. In continuous assessment you can assess all sorts of skills not possible in terminal exam. So ideally you do a mix. There already plenty of project work for the Junior Cert. Continuous assessment should be assessed anonymously if possible. It is not always possible but always more objective when it is done that way. I don’t know how it is DCU but during my time in UCC continuous assessment was nearly always marked anonymously. It was not possible with dissertations but most of my BA marks came via anonymous assessed work.

      Despite being anonymous in third level the lecturer does actually mark his own students but we should not assume what occurs in third level is fit for purpose. If I compare assessment at UCC to my Leaving and Junior Cert what happened in UCC was far more haphazard, inconsistent and amateurish. One lecturer in UCC (50 year of age) told me she never failed a student! This is an awful model for secondary schools.

      • Greg Foley says:

        The humanities possible presents particular challenges – I can’t really say – but in the STEM disciplines, it is possible to assess in a much less subjective way; it just depends on how you frame the question. Furthermore, my experience is that it is often essential to be have been in regular contact with the student to be able to meaningfully assess laboratory project work, for example. A written thesis only tells part of the story. When discussing marks with a second reader it often happens that you have to defend a student’s approach and attitude which all counts towards a final mark. The second reader doesn’t know these things and can often get a very limited perspective on the student.

    • bealoideas says:

      I am not teacher so I won’t speak for them but here is my two cents. There two issues
      anonymous vs teacher assessed work
      continuous assessment vs terminal exams.

      Anonymous terminal exams are far the fairest and least subjective form of assessment. Continuous assessment has flaws such as fairness issues but it has advantages too as its a more real world scenario. In continuous assessment you can assess all sorts of skills not possible in terminal exam. So ideally, there is a mix. There already plenty of project work for the Junior Cert. Continuous assessment should be assessed anonymously if possible. It is not always possible but always more objective when it is done that way. I don’t know how it is DCU but during my time in UCC continuous assessment was nearly always marked anonymously. It was not possible with dissertations but most of my BA marks came via anonymous assessed work.

      In third level the lecturer does actually mark their own students despite being anonymous but we should not assume what occurs in third level is fit for purpose or automatically suitable for secondary schools. If I compare assessment at UCC to my Leaving and Junior Cert what happened in UCC was far more haphazard, inconsistent and amateurish. One lecturer in UCC (50 year of age) told me she never failed a student! This is an awful model for secondary schools.

      • Greg Foley says:

        What is important is to get a good mix. I would agree that terminal exams are the best measure of ‘pure’ ability but not perfect as we all know. The key to all of this is diversity but I think it is impossible to avoid some assessment by the ‘teacher’ – at all levels – because as I mentioned it is often the teacher is in the best position to assess the student, taking into account all sorts of factors other than what is on the written page. It is also the teacher who is in the best position to give constructive feedback in the most sensitive way. And, as I mentioned school-based assessment can involve activities that can be marked completely objectively – it’s not all about ‘projects’. I just think the teachers are being inflexible on this and the minister has come up with a reasonable compromise. With a 40% CA contribution, it is likely that the terminal exam will remain the grade-controlling assessment so the various CA components, if there are enough of them, will not necessarily be high stakes.

        As for the various examples of poor practice, I think you can never account for individual incompetence but in my time in DCU there has been a huge increase in accountability in the assessment of students.

  3. Anonymous says:

    The banks had light touch regulation, The Church had light touch regulation, The Solicitors have light touch regulation, The Auctioneers have light touch regulation. Can you see the problem…
    The problem is that this country is wide open to the abuse of position. That is the real problem.
    If think students are plagerising in your class unknowing to you then you are living in dream world.
    You made the point that a student that receive extra help from you will receive a lesser grade than someone who does on their own.. How do you know if they are doing it on their own? The clever students have probably figured out not asking for help could lead to a better grade. In second level,, the students that apply pressure (through their parents) will probably recieve a better grade.
    This is the problem. The second level system isn’t corrupted yet; What is proposed will lead to a level of corruption that isn’t acceptable.

    • Greg Foley says:

      What a depressing view of Irish education! The implication in what you’re saying is that all of us in the third level system are duped and corrupt! I’d love to know how you became so cynical.

      • bealoideas says:

        Plagiarism is a huge issue in third level education. Hence the phenomenal success of plagiarism detectors like turnitin.

      • Anonymous says:

        Hi Greg,
        A realist, not a cynical pessimist.. I work in the system in third level. There are so many chancers and loopers in third level that cut all sorts of corners on quality and depth of education. I don’t want to see second level going the same way; it will with the proposals from the SEC.
        As an analogy,, Why is a mechanic not allowed to NCT his/her own car?.. because we all know that this is Ireland we love cut corners.

        • Greg Foley says:

          They’re to be found at second level as well but we shouldn’t let the system be driven by the chancers. The key thing that seems to be forgotten in all this, especially by letter writers to the Irish Times, is that the CA will only account for 40% – not the whole hog. (I wouldn’t agree with a 100% CA myself because students need to be tested in an exam.) I don’t understand why the teachers won’t engage and discuss this 40%, perhaps arguing for a lower figure. But the all-or-nothing approach seems to rule out the possibility of examining students in ways and in an material that simply cannot be assessed in a final pen-and-paper exam. That severely limits what will be learned because if it isn’t examined the students won’t learn it.

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