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Standardised testing: What's the point?

A pile of NCEA exam booklets, returned and mar...Image via WikipediaI would argue that "Assessment practice is at its most rich when assessment events are relevant, authentic and timely. Relevant assessment is that which is inextricably linked to learning outcomes designed to meet an agreed graduate profile (Biggs, 1999).

Authentic assessment requires students to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate meaningful application of essential skills and knowledge. Timely assessment provides students with the opportunity to apply skills and knowledge gained as they learn.

Learning and teaching in a blended format enables relevant, authentic and timely assessment that is greatly facilitated by the use of online tools, including self-grading, simulation and problem-based approaches, activities that require reflection and peer-review and the electronic delivery of assessment tasks." (source)


So - I was aghast when I read Florence Lyon's post (extract below). What do you feel the solutions are? Are there any? Where next?:

A few days ago Year 11 sat the French NCEA which is the end of year exam here in New Zealand. As you might be aware the exam was of a poor quality. Some questions were of a level 3 instead of level 1. French teachers have complained and you can listen to a podcast of teachers expressing their feelings.

Of course like all the other teachers I am shocked and disappointed that my students were assessed to a higher level than they are expected to work at. But I am more asking myself about the idea of exams itself.
I actually do not know why students have to sit an exam at the end of the year. What is the point ?

So you work all year around, you learn everyday more French and at the end of the year you sit an exam and then what ?? 2 possibilities here: first you carry on with French or it was your last test ever in French. Either way you haven’t learnt anything at all from this exam.
In 2011, we have seen in NZ students using more and more ePortfolios in order to not only gather evidences but also to reflect on their own progress. To me, it seems it is pointless then to ask our students to sit an exam at the end of the year. I think it would be a much better idea to ask our pupils to sit an exam during the year, give them feedback and ask them to sit the same exam (or another one of same difficulty) and see what the progress has been.
It is common practice in other subjects to pre-test student and then retest them later on using the same test (when the learning has taken place). By doing so students can see their progress and are given the opportunity to actually reflect on their learning.
What do the students do with their NCEA results ??
Yes I am outraged that the exam was of a very poor quality, full of errors and of too high a level, but for me the biggest complaint is that there is no point at all to assess the students the way it is done now.

(this is a cross post from )

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Comment by Eddie Reisch on February 9, 2015 at 8:25


Comment by Moana Timoko on February 1, 2015 at 13:26

Kia ora 

Pai te kōrero nei.  Great read 'Preparing for a Renaissance in Assessment' - Thanks Hazel.  I have to admit I looked up the kupu 'Sisyphean' lol.  He kupu hou, he kupu hou.

I plan to share the 'Framework for action' - it's simple and maps it all out for you.

I'm about keeping things real...the article summary ended by mentioning supporting a focus on...skills for living and learning in the 21st century.  'Living' these days is a skill in itself for many - times are hard for some and life for some of our NCEA students is demanding and stressful enough.   I'd hate for my son to stress over sitting a 1-2 hour exam - No fun in that!  But I guess I'd still give him the choice...he might enjoy the prep and hype.  I'm excited by the opportunities Digital technologies bring to modify...or 'funnify' our assessment practices - (He kupu hou, he kupu hou).

That aside - I admire anyone who is willing to take on NCEA externals these days.  

Comment by Hazel Owen on January 29, 2015 at 22:05

I'm going to jump in very briefly here with an article that suggests we may be facing a Sisyphean task, Monika- in spite of all the visionary work done early on Eddie :( 

For example, five key points:

  • Adaptive testing (for example, tests that evolve in real time on screen) will help generate more accurate tests and reduce the amount of time schools spend on testing

  • Smarter, automated marking of exams will help improve accuracy and reduce the time teachers spend marking “rote” answers

  • Technology will help combine student performance across multiple papers and subjects.

  • Assessment will provide on-going feedback, which, will help personalise teaching and improve learning.

  • New digital technologies will minimise opportunities for cheating in exams or “gaming the system”.

Comment by Monika Kern on January 29, 2015 at 1:19

I very much agree with what you are saying, and I love the fact that in theory it can be so flexible and accommodating to students' individual needs, interests etc. However, I have been guilty of it myself when I still taught in secondary school to pick the achievement standards wanted the students to take, to offer the topics that I thought they should study for this etc. etc. With the pressure teachers are under, many are going down this pathway, and I think there is still a big emphasis on 'exams' as 'true reflection' of a student's achievement - the internal assessments could be 'incorrectly marked' by their teacher. NOT that we have not had errors in exams or in exam marking, which is in the end also done by teachers lol!

My biggest frustration though is still how the argument that a certain percentage of students has to pass NCEA is still used to maintain the status quo in so many aspects, I'm sure you have heard comments like "we can't have assessments submitted typed up, students have to handwrite their exams after all" etc.

So I very much agree with your, Eddie, let's look at the original vision behind NCEA which in my humble opinion very much looks at future focused teaching and learning, and lets look out how we can create conditions for this to be achievable by both teachers and students. Once we got this sorted, we might have a very different discussion...

What do you and what do others think? Is this an opportunity you would be interested in exploring as teacher?

Comment by Eddie Reisch on January 28, 2015 at 11:10

Hi Monika

I just watched Dr. Carol Dweck fixed Vs Growth Mindsets and she hit the nail on the head. I was a part of a team that wrote the NCEA stabdards back in the 90s and my understanding then was that NCEA was to allow a number of things:

1. was cherry picking small topics or standards that interested and enhanced the student

2.. Testing or maybe positioning students so they new what they were good at and what they needed to work on, therefore giving the real power of learning to the student

3. It is as Dr. Carol Dweck said to say yet or not yet not fail or pass

There was in my understanding back then the desire to get away from end of year or long examinations which told the student nothing really.

So get the NCEA back to what it was supposed to be I say

Comment by Monika Kern on January 20, 2015 at 11:00
If one of the our goals is to prepare our learners for life in 21C we need to critically review summative assessment. Who of us gets their performance reviewed once a year in a quiet room put of context? I am not against exams per se, but I am not comfortable how NCEA exams are often the tail wagging the dog... Is this system still appropriate or are we as I just read in a blog post still producing the best prepared generation for the industrial revolution?
Comment by Hazel Owen on November 23, 2011 at 8:24
I feel you are spot on re: the formative testing, Peter. Formative assessment (and this can be formal or informal) can be a great way to encourage reflection I've found. Those concepts I thought I had grasped...I find out in fact I was off track.

Really like your practice of of student-centred approaches with a built in opportunity for increasing depth of understanding and maturing skills, rather than high stakes 'sudden death' exams!

As for standardised testing - it obviously sits uneasily with many educators around the world (see for example, this post: Testing, testing, testing). The notion that we are perhaps in a time of transition would be a positive view, and you raise the point that "many syllabii are a carry over into a different teaching age that has so many other methods of delivery and assessment using a range of technologies". I'd add to this that many policy makers are not well-versed in education (except for their own experiences) and may have little notion of other methods or potential alternatives to standardised testing. Not sure what the solution is, but am hoping that there is indeed room for hope that change may be afoot :-)
Comment by Peter Breach on November 22, 2011 at 17:40

To test or not.  I actually believe that testing is a valid and vital part of the whole learning experience.  A measure for the teacher on how the class is doing, and for each student an opportunity for them to see what areas they have developed in.

But the formal exam cycle is not something I am enamoured with.  I have seen too many students who have demonstrated time and again their abilities be tripped up in an exam.  This is of particular relevance when teaching across languages and it is the language of the question that causes the problem.

I set up a few years ago a much more student centered approach using workbooks and banks of activities.  I've also worked on developing a checklist approach for students to identify what they can achieve and with basic reflection.  Bear in mind this was initially Y5 & 6 Students.

Currently I am developing skills with Y9 ICT students.  I work with regular incremental activities that show the student consolidating earlier work and attempting new topics.Everything is assessed according to the curriculum standards.
Is it a perfect solution?  Probably not, but there is no sudden death pass/fail at the end of the year/semester; Students can see exactly where they are doing well and less well and can focus their activities; Teacher can have a lot of marking, but can recap and where necessary redo work.

I’ve also worked with the UK National Vocational Qualifications where students develop skills over a period of time and are assessed as “Competent” or “Not yet competent” and again allowing teacher and student to focus where it is needed.

I believe that the “exams” are board driven and like many syllabii are a carry over into a different teaching age that has so many other methods of delivery and assessment using a range of technologies.

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