Friday, 9 October 2009

Student assessment - a necessary evil or a learning tool?

I seem to have embarked on a mission of explaining our rather peculiar high school system in Finland in English. The reason for this is that I haven't found any grassroots information about it in English, and many foreign colleagues often ask about 'the Finnish secret of success' based on our students' outstanding results in the OECD PISA assessments. The PISA tests involve 15-year-old students, so it doesn't really say anything about our senior high schools, where I teach, and which about 50 % of Finnish youngsters choose to attend, while the other half goes into various vocational institutions. If you are interested in the Finnish school system, you will find a lot of information on the University of Helsinki pages about Finland and Pisa, for example, or some of my explanations about senior high schools in particular in this post.

This time I will reflect on student assessment, an integral and passionately discussed part of all schooling. To tell you the truth, I sometimes wish I could forget about course assessment all together and concentrate on mere learning with my students. Pie in the sky, I know, as I'm sure assessment will always be performed in schools, in one form or another, but all the multiple purposes it can serve, is another story.

In my previous post I touched on one part of student assessment in Finnish high schools - regular exams that take place 5 times a year as part of the course-based, modular curriculum and the national final exams as the culmination of students' 12-year schooling, a kind of  'test of maturity' reflected in the often used English translation of the name of these exams 'matriculation examination'. At graduation, each Finnish student receives two diplomas - one given by the school and based on the GPA of all the exams and grades during the 3-4 high school years given by various teachers, and the national diploma based only on the results of the national exams. Both of these are taken into account when applying for university, for example.

In our system, the grade for each course is given based on the students' performance in the end exam together with their overall performance throughout the course, which may be a very subjective assessment by the teacher. In our curriculum there is a concept called 'continuous performance', which usually accounts for +/- 1 grades in the final course assessment. In reality this concept is rather vague and there appear to be as many interpretations of it as there are teachers.

Some say it means active participation in class - but how about students who may be very good learners, but are very shy and quiet by nature to share what they know in class? Should they be penalised for their personality? Moreover, what is considered active participation? Is it simply putting your hand up to answer the teacher's questions? Some students appear to be very active, but actually only want to answer the simplest questions, the answers for which they can read from an exercise book - which  they may have acquired from a sibling or friend who had taken the course earlier and filled in all the correct answers. How is a teacher to know all this in a group of 36 that you only meet for some 30 lessons? Others interpret 'continuous performance' to mean some proof of the student's learning during the course, maybe demonstrated in extra homework assignments, project work, a portfolio, spoken presentations, a learning journal  - there are countless options, and teachers have free hands to design their courses, as long as they make sure that each student knows exactly what is expected of them right at the beginning, and how each assignment and test is going to affect the final course grade.

About ten years ago, the situation was quite different - the structure of courses was more standardized and teachers didn't use to negotiate the learning goals, focuses or methods as much as now. Although I welcome this democratization and individualization of education, I must say I find the accompanying increased litigiousness of schools rather troublesome. For example, I have already started writing 'course contracts' with all the expectations clearly stated, which each student then signs to prove that they have been informed and that they understand it, too. Before I did this, there were always students who claimed that they hadn't been informed, and consequently weren't aware of certain extra assignments, for example, and so couldn't be expected to hand them in. I am inclined to interpret these claims as a game of avoiding learning, a total waste of valuable time, which the student could choose to spend productively. No doubt, the students may have a totally relevant justification for such behaviour. Maybe the assignment didn't challenge them enough, or was simply too boring. Why should they do it anyway just because the teacher says so?

In foreign languages, an extra assignment is most often writing an essay on a given topic at home. Cheating goes on, essays are copied from the net, friends' old essays are recycled, essays are written for others as a favour, you name it. Often none of this can be proved by the teacher, and so a cheat gets a claringly unfair benefit compared to a slacker who never bothered to write the essay, but still managed to do better in the end-of-the-course exam. I wonder if anybody else ever gets totally desperate with the challenges of school assessment? I strongly suspect that it is impossible to be 100 % fair to all students.

I have fairly clear goals of what I would ultimately like to achieve during my language courses. My most basic principles are: firstly, that students should not waste their time at school, but keep learning all the time and later be able to apply their learning outside school, and secondly, transparency and fairness of assessment. To achieve these goals I have mostly abandoned the only-for-the-sake-of-it homework writing assignments, and started doing process-based writing with peer reviews, several editing sessions and hopefully, improved end results that clearly attest what the student has learned.

students hard at work by Susan NYC on Flickr

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