With the Annual National Assessments rapidly approaching, it is worthwhile reflecting on how assessment is best used in education. Different countries approach formal assessments in the primary sector in different ways: from no testing whatsoever in Norway to national testing in each year such as in England. Just as a pot doesn’t boil faster if you watch it, it is certainly true that similarly learners do not increase their knowledge purely by assessing them more often. And, whilst there is often something to be said for providing enough practice for children not to fear exams, systems often move to the other extreme of testing too regularly at too young an age.
South Africa’s approach is one of high-stakes testing once a year. That the stakes are high is borne out by the emphasis being placed on the results of these assessments both individually and collectively. It is true that an assessment is only as valuable as the way in which it is used. In the classroom, this means using them to identify areas of collective or individual weakness and remediating these. On a school level, it means analysis of weak learning areas and the list goes on: districts are compared with districts and provinces are compared with other provinces.
Here the ANA have certainly got something right: each parent in the country should be informed of both their child’s and their school’s performance. This is the beginning of increasing school’s accountability for the outcomes they produce and their improvement year-on-year. Such a system allows parents to compare the effectiveness of schools using grade averages and identify their child’s relative achievement within that grade. For me, the most important aspect of this is the dissemination of information to parents. But how well has this been advertised? Are we sure that this process has been communicated to those parents who most need to know how this son/daughter is doing? In an era of mass media coverage, how does such an important aspect of education receive so little coverage? From the ‘know your status’ campaign in HIV education, we should be launching a ‘know your progress’ campaign for maths and language learning.
A school is a focal point in any community and we need to be use high-performing or rapidly-improving schools as beacons of success in their locality. If one school is broadcasting its success or improvement, an ever increasing group of parents will start to ask the same question about their own child’s school- how does it compare to other local schools? And, more importantly for parents, how did their son or daughter fare?
As there is, at last, a national measure of learner attainment which is not dependent on the sometimes arbitrary choices of a teacher, we must use this information wisely. This is the real challenge and is one which will, unfortunately, be subsumed this year once again under the rise or fall in our national or provincial averages.