New approaches to assessment

Assessment plays a significant part of our education system — at the end of the day, all learners have a vested interest in knowing how successful they’ve been at learning — and what the measures of their success are. None of us would go to the doctor or visit the hospital with an ailment without an expectation that we’ll receive some sort of treatment to make us well. So too with education — assessment is the way we have of making the learning visible, and of applying some measure to the success of the learner in demonstrating what he or she has learned.

Historically the focus on assessment has been summative — applying measures of how successfully the learner can demonstrate what he or she has acquired through the learning process, usually in the form of a final examination, but sometimes in the presentation of a portfolio, submitted thesis or essay, or completion of a practical task. There is a saying in education that “the pedagogy of assessment drives the pedagogy of instruction”, meaning that the focus on what is being assessed will often drive what and how we teach. We see evidence of this in the way many teachers and schools approach the challenge of assessing students against national standards or NCEA: instead of assessment being the means of measuring student success, it becomes what shapes the curriculum and the way it is taught.

For decades our approach to assessment has been shaped by notions of the physical place and time of assessment activities, leading to practices that require students to complete assessment activities in certain places at certain times. For the most part, these were summative assessments in the form of exams. In recent years there has been an increasing focus on the importance of formative assessment, that is, the assessment of the learning that is taking place through the process of learning, not simply what is produced at the end of it. These approaches are sometimes referred to as assessment as learning – focusing on progressions in learning, and identification of next steps, rather than simply taking a summative view of the exam or assignment at the end of a period of study. Such an approach is gaining support internationally, with a number of initiatives looking at embedding assessment through the learning process.


The NZQA website lists a number of examples of assessment approaches in which they distinguish between ‘task assessment’ and ‘evidence assessment’. NZQA have also recognised that the increasing access to and use of digital technologies by students creates significant opportunities for assessing in different ways – using these technologies as the means of completing assessments that are no longer bound by the same constraints of time and place.

Digital assessment is defined by NZQA on their website as “the use of technology for assessment purposes rather than the traditional pen and paper”.  The use of technology for teaching and learning programmes in New Zealand schools is on the increase and NZQA has developed a digital assessment programme as a response.  While this is a significant step forward, the actual assessment approaches are really about doing what we’ve always done, but in new ways. So what might some of the new ways involve?

Digital technologies are opening up new assessment processes that cater for a learning-centred approach, including eportfolios, rubrics and badges for learning, providing a flexible mechanism for recognising achievements that can be orchestrated and managed by the learner.

Canadian educational researcher and blogger, Stephen Downes, suggests that we need to be focusing more on measuring what learners contribute rather than what they collect. Today's students leave lots of data trails - from demographic information, to how they read and highlight ebooks and interact online. The greater use of analytics tools to capture and process this data may provide even greater opportunities to tailor next-steps suggestions for learners, and to understand where the difficulties are occurring so that we can address them in our planning and teaching.


Thinking about these new approaches to assessment creates opportunities for schools to work with their learners in quite different ways, and to see assessment as a part of the learning process rather than only the thing that is done at the end of a period of study. Over the next few years there will be opportunities for schools to allow students to complete summative assessments using the NZQA digital assessment approaches as they come on stream — but this will rely on schools planning ahead to ensure there is the proper infrastructure in place and access provided to the appropriate devices for all students.

Beyond thinking of the online assessments as simply replacing the current paper-based approaches will come the opportunities for students to complete assessments at different times and in different spaces to the traditional exam room. This will require schools to plan carefully and have mechanisms in place to ensure the identity of students sitting online exams, and processes that confirm it is their own work being submitted.

The growing amount of digital data being generated from learner activity will require schools to consider how they store, manage and report on this data, and how it might be used effectively to enable next-steps learning approaches.  Schools must also come to understand and plan for the ways in which digital technologies will make learning more transparent — for teachers, pupils and their parents/whanau. This will have important consequences not only for learners who will receive greater levels of interest and support from home as a consequence, but also for teachers who will be required to ensure systems are in place to keep the data in school management systems current and relevant. It will also place increased demands on individual learners to take responsibility for managing and keeping current the artefacts in their personal learning portfolios as evidence of their learning.

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CORE staff are using Bundlr to collate links to articles and information relating to new approaches to assessment in a Bundlr collection. There is the option for you to choose to follow the growing collection over the next few months.