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The limits of assessment – What schools can gain from ‘measuring the unmeasurable’

The drive to capture teaching and learning in statistics is causing us to miss hugely important, though harder to gauge, measures of students’ success, says Dr Gary Keogh…

Gary Keogh
by Gary Keogh
FREE, BITE-SIZED CPD 12 bite-size assessment ideas for secondary teachers

Like many, I spent much of summer 2021 watching incredible athletes compete at the Olympic Games.

I remember being struck by the broadcast coverage’s exhaustive analysis, with its measurements of top speeds, average speeds, cadence, stride length, PBs, SBs, ORs, NRs, WRs and more besides

In truth, it was a little like being at school, where we see a similar obsession with measurement in terms of grades, targets, predictions and progress.

Wanting to ‘win’

We love data. The measurement and analysis of statistics has become deeply engrained in our collective psyche and continues to exert a major hold on our education system.

But is this how we should actually measure the performance of our school students? Students have little choice in the matter, despite the massive impact existing metrics have on intangible elements of students’ learning, such as motivation, attitudes, hopes and ambitions, mental health and so on.

The performance of Olympic athletes can be effectively measured because it’s safe to assume that they’re trying to win. Students, however, might not want to ‘win’.

As teachers, our underlying assumption is that better grades are, well, better. A student may well be capable of achieving 3 A*s at A Level, but if they plan on teaching yoga classes on a beach, then they won’t need, or indeed want to spend every waking hour revising in order to realise their academic potential.

Fervent persistence

Speed and distance are easy to quantify because they relate to clear units of measurement. Learning is far more ephemeral. There are methods by which we can try to measure learning – setting different types of questions, continuous/ terminal assessments, grade point averages, etc. – but we ought to consider more fundamental questions.

Can learning actually be measured at all? What do we even mean by ‘learning’? Despite these uncertainties, we have fervently persisted with measuring students, to the point of even allowing such measurements to drive our school policies.

No one would dispute that we need to grade students in some form or another, but should these measurements be allowed to play such a dominant role in our education system? More crucially, what impact are these detached and sterile numbers having on students’ and teachers’ mental health?

Human nature

Human beings don’t neatly correspond to statistics and measurements. We’re intuitive, emotional, incalculable, unruly even. Our personalities, emotions and mindsets can’t be measured, yet they’re by far the most important determinants in teaching and learning.

We can’t put numbers on these things, but we can pay attention to them – though doing so will require us to allow human nature into the equation and embrace those admittedly murky realities.

In practice, then, what should we do? We can give more weight to subjective analysis of learning, rather than becoming embroiled in dubious attempts to objectify. Subjective ‘measurements’ can give us an idea of how learning is going, without needing to put numbers on things.

Yes, this may mean being unable to fill out forms that are universal across different schools, teachers and classes. But such is life – stubbornly unquantifiable. Just like teaching and learning.

Dr Gary Keogh is a former lecturer at the University of Manchester, and currently a full-time secondary school teacher and PSHE programme coordinator; his book, A Pedagogy of Purpose: Classical Wisdom for the Modern Classroom, is available now (John Catt Educational).

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