Assessment often dominates our learners’ lives be it through external exams or internal coursework. What are the pros and cons of standardised tests? Are projects a viable alternative? Read on to find out...
Assessment has been a dominant theme in my classes over the last year. Having just completed end-of-term reports with an obligatory ‘end-of-term test’ result to be entered, it has been at the forefront of my mind again.
Last year, I simply totalled up and averaged out the results of various end-of-unit tests, assessed homework activities, samples of written work, and scores from oral presentations, generally making sure there was something to represent each of the four language skills along with a grammar or vocabulary test.
However, this year I have taken much more care after the last academic year saw school exams cancelled and the major language tests suspended in most parts of the world. I could never have anticipated that the grades compiled by my last year’s test correlations could be used to provide evidence for the learners’ final grades, so this year I find myself acutely aware that this is (potentially) much more than a simple performance indicator on an end-of-term report.
The past year has led to many discussions about the value and the possible pitfalls of exam-based education systems. Old debates about giving more weight to internally-assessed coursework have resurfaced and in this final blog of 2020, I am going to discuss some of the pros and cons of external and internal assessment.
Pro – equal and comparable results
One of the main advantages of standardised testing is that it is, well, standardised. Students who have spent months, or perhaps a couple of years preparing for a test, will all face the same questions under the same conditions, no matter where they are located in the world. This provides individuals, schools, government departments and many other institutions with a benchmark to show their level of command of English.
Take IELTS as an example – band scores help universities and other institutions of education know what level of support a new student is likely to need. Having worked in international schools for many years, I found any recent scores from tests like First for Schools of IGCSE English as a Second Language incredibly useful when placing students in the correct sets, much more so than a recommendation from a past teacher.
For the students too, their externally verified test score gives them a clear indication of their level. They will have taken a professionally produced test that has passed through a rigorous process to ensure it meets standards and is pitched at the correct level. Once they have sat the test, it will go through an equally rigorous process of marking and moderation at the hands of trained examiners using highly detailed mark schemes. This in turn will be subject to quality checks all to ensure it has been graded as fairly and accurately as possible.
Con – it all comes down to this
It can also be argued, however, that the standardised conditions of tests represent a weakness as well as a strength. While it is a positive that all candidates are assessed in the same way using the same tasks and the same conditions, this restricts the test to being not much more than a snapshot of a student’s ability. It shows us what they were capable of on a particular day and does not take into account temporary factors such as stress levels, illness, or factors beyond the students’ control that may affect their performance (my mind immediately goes back to a time at university when the bus I was on broke down and I made it to the exam venue just as the session was starting – not the ideal preparation!).
An exam paper (or even a series of exam papers) cannot possibly test each student’s entire knowledge so some may get unlucky in the sense that topics or aspects of language they are not so confident in or familiar with pop up on the exam. Conversely, another student may get lucky in that none of the gaps in their knowledge prove crucial to the exam and they end up with a higher score than they might otherwise have.
A lot of the above can be mitigated by professional test design. The majority of current major language tests focus on application of skills and overall comprehension of language more than discrete items of linguistic knowledge. Nevertheless, the topic of a reading, writing, or speaking task can easily set a student at ease (as one of my classes of geography students experienced recently when presented with a text about sustainable homes) or send them into a panic (like the same group of students – all boys – when the next task asked them to write a letter of complaint in response to a controversial advert for a beauty product!).
Pro – a chance to demonstrate learning and progression
Internal assessment most commonly occurs in three forms – project work produced over an extended period, portfolios which are collated over the duration of a course, or oral presentations which are performed and marked in school but moderated externally.
While oral presentations have the same ‘one shot’ conditions as exams, projects and portfolios offer a valuable opportunity for students to demonstrate their learning in more depth. Projects open up the avenue of research with the learner able to select an area of interest, engage in discovering more about it, and produce a meaningful piece of work at the end. Although not externally assessed, we do this with the senior students at my school asking them to produce an extended essay and a presentation based upon it. This allows them to engage with a topic in depth, apply and develop their academic research, reading, and writing skills, and gain an insight into what life as a university student will be like.
Portfolios also offer a chance for learners to show progression. They can gather samples of their written work from different points in their learning journey and reflect upon how they have developed and improved (though it would be important in this case for any grading of their early contributions to reflect that these come from an earlier stage in their language development).
Overall, the time available for learners to work on and develop internally assessed extended pieces of work allows them to learn and work towards their grade at the same time making assessment a part of the learning process at not just an end point.
Con – different expectations
However, internal assessments have their weaknesses too. As alluded to above, sometimes the same criteria may be used to assess contributions from earlier in the course and later in the course, disregarding the different levels of language the student would have been capable of producing at the time.
While there is room for interpretation and exploration when a learner defines their area of focus, this can also lead to different understandings of what is required. I have worked in two different schools which followed an exam programme including an internally-assessed oral presentation. Both schools ran the internal assessment quite differently despite having the same set of criteria to work from.
Levels of assistance will vary as well. Some schools may leave learners to get one with it and offer minimal feedback while others may provide so much support that they end up taking away from the intended independent learning aspect.
Finally, when it comes to marking, there may be differences. Without the special training and repeated experience of a qualified examiner, teachers grading internally produced work may misapply the mark scheme or let personal biases influence them in marking certain learners up or down.
Moderation can mitigate this to an extent but as this often means just three or four pieces of work from a collection of 100s being checked, with further investigations only taking place if most of that small sample is found to be mis-graded.
External or internal?
So, both ways of assessing students for their qualifications have their pros and cons. Ultimately, which one is better? The last year has shown that over-reliance on external exams can leave educators and students stuck when something goes wrong. Granted there won’t be a global pandemic every year but there is a lot of scope for things to go wrong with one exam on one day.
However, internal assessments have their weaknesses too from inconsistent application of guidelines to misinterpretation of mark schemes and the amount of time it would take to moderate it all.
As ever, I believe there needs to be a balance. There is without a doubt a place for professionally produced exams which are marked fairly by trained examiners. There is also a place for giving more prominence to work which reflects the interests and progress of the learner provided the teachers are trained in how to oversee coursework and how to assess it.
What are your thoughts? Do external exams offer the best indication of pupil performance or do internal assessments give a more complete picture? Do share your thoughts in the comments below.