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Why assess key competencies? (archived)

The following table sets out three broad purposes for assessing any learning and the general features of assessment tasks suitable for each purpose. This table is not intended to be read in an either/or way. Each purpose has its place. So does each type of task. The challenge here is to reconcile two potentially conflicting questions.

  • Which broad purpose most closely matches the intent of introducing key competencies into the curriculum?
  • For which purposes is our school thinking about assessing key competencies?

Table: Three broad purposes for assessment


Appropriate assessment tasks and tools

Accountability and reporting
Summative assessment results are shared with students, their parents, the wider community, Education Review Office (ERO), and the Ministry of Education. This purpose has traditionally been met by benchmarked tools, tests, and examinations (eg Performance Achievement Tests (PATs), Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning (asTTLe), and School Certificate) that yield data comparing students to their peers.
Improving teaching and learning
This purpose, which involves formative assessment, may be called assessment for learning or assessment as learning. Achievement evidence is judged against specified standards or outcomes rather than by comparing students with each other. The focus is on what each student can do and their next learning steps. Any task that validly answers these questions can be used. The judgment is usually made by the teacher. Assessment for learning can be used for summative purposes if it is designed for this use, eg the National Certificate of Education Achievement (NCEA).
Fostering lifelong learning
This purpose extends assessment for learning by adding a focus on dispositions and actions. It more actively includes the student in all aspects of decision making. Students are directly involved in assessing their own learning and in thinking about their success in terms of learning to learn, with the aim of empowering them to continue learning at and beyond school.

The first two purposes on this table will be very familiar to all teachers. The third is becoming more and more important, and we'll shortly look at why that is. If fostering dispositions for lifelong learning is seen as important, and if strengthening key competencies is seen as an important means of achieving this goal of long-term learning, we need to explore ways of including students in making judgments about their learning. Of course, this has to be done without relinquishing professional responsibility for gathering assessment feedback to inform next learning steps or to report for accountability purposes. We need to blend the best of what we know already with some newer strategies that give more prominence to the students' own judgments. This is a shift in thinking about the roles that teachers and students play during learning. It's already emphasised in projects, such as Assess to Learn (AToL), that focus on strengthening teaching and learning. Conversations with students about their identities, strengths, and goals as learners add this further dimension for fostering lifelong learning.

Assessment experts who have considered the challenge of meeting all these purposes without doing too much assessment say that rich information about achievement during meaningful assessment tasks can be pared back to meet reporting purposes. But pared-back assessments are difficult to scale up to provide information for next learning steps or personalised learning achievements. So what types of tasks might be helpful here? NZCER researchers recently analysed several different contexts where assessment methods were intended to address similar purposes to those above (Hipkins, Boyd, and Joyce, 2007) and came up with this list of design features for tasks to be used for assessment:

  • The learning to be gained from the task is clear to all involved.
  • Assessment tasks involve judging a performance. Ideally, this should happen in a way that refers to what students can do now compared to what they could do before.
  • The performance to be judged is based on a task that is as authentic as possible, that is, located in a meaningful context and involving doing something that the student would see as relevant to their learning.
  • Both the learner and the assessor are clear about the types of evidence that will be used to infer successful performance. For this reason, assessment should be criterion based.
  • The process of assessment needs to empower the learner to further develop their personal competencies.
  • For this to happen, reporting provides clear feedback based on the collected evidence, so that actual achievements and next learning steps are clear.
  • When making overall judgment about competency in any one aspect, several assessment events and/or contexts should be used and different types of evidence should be collected.
  • More than one person is involved in making judgments, where possible.
  • The learner should preferably be included in the summative process as soon as they are old enough to participate meaningfully. The process should be collaborative.

It should be evident that many different types of tasks could meet these design specifications. There is no one right way to assess key competencies, but some types of assessment tasks will meet these specifications more easily than others. We'll come back to that at the end of the booklet. Before we get to practical assessment questions, it's important to be clear about the benefits of putting time and effort into rethinking familiar assessment practices. Why should we do this? Why can't we just keep using assessment methods we already know so well? These are the important questions we'll consider next.

Next – The 'something new' in key competencies: There are implications for assessment

Published on: 17 Mar 2008