The ARC Education Project: Rethinking Secondary Examinations and Credentials

On November 9th 2021, the ARC Education Project hosted its bi-monthly ThoughtMeet (TM) event on ‘Rethinking secondary examinations and credentials.’ ARC Talks were provided by ARC co-founder Yngve Lindvig (CEO of LearnLab), as well as global thought leaders Dr. Linda Darling-Hamond (Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education Emeritus at Stanford University) and Dr. Dylan Wiliam (Emeritus Professor of Educational Assessment at the University of London). This article highlights the key ideas and issues that were discussed by the ARC TM participants, representatives from the seven ARC member systems and its global partners. A detailed description from the November meeting can be found here; additional videos and other resources can be found here. The Atlantic Rim Collaboratory (ARC) is an international policy learning network that was established in 2016 to advance educational change based on eight guiding principles: equity, excellence, inclusion, wellbeing, democracy, sustainability, human rights, and professionally run systems.

What is the key problem with secondary examinations and credentials today? 

With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting formal schooling for millions of students across the globe, the assessment of student learning remains a major challenge for education systems. Since 2020, there has been widespread interruption and cancellation of high-stakes national and graduating professional examinations, which has had an impact on student progression, certification, qualification and graduation (UNESCO, 2020; World Bank, 2020). This has left many education systems in a unique situation to explore new and alternative assessment approaches. In an effort to support ARC member systems in ways to rethink secondary examinations and credentials, the November 9th ARC ThoughtMeet challenged participants to consider: What kind of assessment do we need, and can we have in the future?

What’s been learned?

One of the key issues raised during the TM was that all assessment tools and methods have problematic elements and much depends on their purpose, use and context. As Wiliam highlighted in his ARC talk, “There is no perfect assessment system, there are always trade-offs and the big idea is: What trade-offs are you making?”  Specifically, the type of assessment used by education systems has meanings, social consequences and effects for members. They help us know something about students and send messages to all stakeholders about what is considered valuable.

As Darling-Hammond points out, many of the high-stakes assessment policies currently in place are linked to systemic inequity and bias. For example, she described how the high-stakes SAT in the United States of America has become “a better predictor of race than it is of success in college.” For Darling-Hammond, more meaningful assessment methods focus on ‘learning ability,’ which she describes as the abilities to transfer and apply knowledge; analyze, evaluate, weigh and balance; communicate and collaborate; take initiative; find and use resources; plan and implement; self-manage and improve; as well as learn to learn. As such, performance assessments are gaining attention in a number of international education systems as a means to not only strengthen secondary education but also to better prepare students to succeed in post-secondary tasks. Yet, as Wiliam reminds us, there are also trade-offs when moving to use more authentic performance assessments. As he notes, there is an element of ‘luck’ around the particular type of performance assessment students are given, which brings in a degree of unreliability, referred to as person-task interactions in psychometrics.

What are the implications for policy/practice? 

As noted earlier, Wiliam invites us to be aware that assessment improvement always includes making trade-offs. Although some aspects will be better when implementing a change, others will worsen. It is therefore important to understand why things are the way they are in a particular system. Moreover, the politicization of assessment has led to money and resource allocation for high-stakes testing, and to decisions made by politicians rather than by education professionals. Thus, public education systems and post-secondary institutions need to work together to co-construct solutions and desired assessment outcomes. Additionally, Yngve Lindvig reminds us in his provocation that large-scale national exams are not measuring what they should and are in fact destroying schools’ opportunity to foster creativity, deep learning and problem-solving among students. He argues that locally-tailored, trusted, formative assessment systems, with clear goals, should be designed with the help of teachers and education experts. Darling-Hammond points out that there are several systems exploring alternative and innovative approaches to qualifications assessment that are being co-created between educators and policy leaders. For example, the Reimagining College Access (RCA) initiative in the US is a national effort to advance the use of high-quality performance assessments and evaluate students’ ability and agency through course completion, portfolios and a defense of ideas before a committee. Wiliam also reminds us that assessment developers should not do the work of curriculum philosophers. Curriculum content should be clear in order for assessment design to be a value free endeavor. He proposes a principled approach to assessment design (distributed, synoptic, extensive, manageable, trusted) with clearly defined underlying constructs, useful in the context where it will be implemented.

What’s next?

Like previous ARC TMs, this event stimulated thinking and provoked further questions for participants. A more detailed capture of the discussion can be found in the summary document. The summary also includes a number of questions to spark future discussions on assessment, secondary examinations and credentials, such as:

  • How do we make assessment relevant for the 21st-century skills we wish to promote?
  • What does a principled and decolonized approach to assessment design look like? How can we examine the voices that have been and continue to be marginalized and excluded in assessment processes?
  • How can systems make high-stakes assessment an experience of deep learning? Can it be an engaging and motivating process for students, while also assessing the skills and learning abilities of students?
  • What role does technology play in assessment, such as formative real-time assessment tools, digital portfolios, etc?
  • How can we move beyond the one measure of achievement and/or aptitude in the decision-making of high-stakes assessment?

— Mariana Domínguez González, Trista Hollweck & Daphne Varghese

Initial provocation by Yngve Lindvig: 

Progressive Pedagogy and Seamless Technology 

Yngve Lindvig’s provocation challenges systems to consider how to empower teacher and student voices in assessments, steer away from the practice of “teaching to the test”, and consider the benefits of using digital learning tools to collect data as a means to increase formative assessment and reduce summative assessments. He also urges policymakers to involve educators in the decision-making process.

Presentation by Linda Darling-Hammond: 

Whither Secondary Assessment? 

In this ARC Talk Linda Darling-Hammond challenges current assessment practices and offers “learning ability” as an alternative approach to measure student achievement. She outlines what she means by learning ability and provides examples from international education systems.

Other helpful resources relating to Linda Darling-Hammond’s presentation: 

Presentation by Dylan Wiliam: 

Rethinking secondary examinations and credentials

Dylan Wiliam reminds us that assessment systems are never perfect. Rather, they are contextual and all potential changes can lead to both positive and negative effects. In this ARC Talk he describes what he means by a principled approach to assessment desi

Other helpful resources relating to Dylan Wiliam’s presentation:

About the Atlantic Rim Collaboratory

The Atlantic Rim Collaboratory (ARC) is an international policy learning network that was established in 2016 to advance educational change based on eight guiding principles: equity, excellence, inclusion, wellbeing, democracy, sustainability, human rights, and professionally run systems. Headquartered at the University of Ottawa (Ontario, Canada) since 2019, ARC brings together senior public officials (i.e ministers and deputy ministers of education), professional association leaders (i.e. unions and inspectorates) and other key stakeholders from its seven education member systems (Iceland, Ireland, Nova Scotia, Saskatchewan, Scotland, Uruguay and Wales), global partners (International Confederation of Principals) and international experts and scholars to discuss, debate and exchange knowledge about educational policy issues and to formulate responses suited to their contexts. One of the founding ideas behind ARC is to tear down the walls between countries and regions, as well as between educational researchers and politicians, in order to pursue the most fundamental ideas of what it means to be educated in today’s world for the mutual benefit of all ARC-systems and future generations of students worldwide. Every year, ARC members meet at the annual Summit hosted by one of the member systems. However, since 2020, in addition to a virtual summit, ARC has also hosted bi-monthly virtual ARC ThoughtMeets (TMs) for its members. The TM outreach series was designed to stimulate and support a global educational movement for equitable, inclusive and sustainable educational solutions to COVID-19.

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