Advice Column, Education, Koa Academy, Online Education

Better school assessments for today’s world

  • Koa Academy
  • Category Advice Column, Education, Koa Academy, Online Education

The recent explosion of AI into our daily life is testimony to how fast our world can change, and how thoroughly it can be disrupted.  AI has already profoundly changed how schools need to think about assessments.  Within two months of becoming available to any internet user, AI language model ChatGPT attracted 100 million users.  In 2023, it is estimated that 14 million users interact with ChatGPT daily.  This chatbot can do your desktop research for you in seconds, as well as generate a wide variety of content including school book reports and Grade 12 essays in real-time.  ChatGPT can explain Maths concepts and will very competently solve a mathematical word problem for you.

While the veracity of chatbots such as ChatGPT is up for debate, the millions of users who have signed up so far are in the process of training it to become more accurate and more reliable.  In other words, it is surely going to get better at what it does.  Across the world, universities and schools are grappling with how this is going disrupt their traditional assessment methods which rely heavily on students generating a variety of texts to demonstrate they understand topics that have been taught.

However, not all educators are wringing their hands in despair.  According to Mark Anderson, Principal of Koa Academy, a uniquely high-engagement online school, this major, looming disruption is a good thing.  “Traditional assessment at school and university is woefully outdated, and is no longer meaningful in our modern world,” he says. “These assessments have been designed to be relevant to the teaching of hard skills at a time when you needed to learn and memorise a series of facts or functions in order to do your job.  They are designed to test memorisation and repetition, and yet the world of work is demanding something very different.  Today, there’s much stronger focus on what used to be known as ‘soft skills’; we call them key skills – critical thinking and problem-solving, creativity and innovation, communication, and empathy.  Traditional school models are using an industrial-era assessment approach to try prepare children for the world of work in the information age.  In other words, traditional assessments are designed for a world that does not exist anymore. This is a fundamental and ineffective mismatch that creates stress for learners and students and fails to empower educators with accurate and meaningful measures of their students’ progress.  In essence, we don’t need to change the approach to assessment because of the rise of chatbots, we need to change it because it hasn’t been working optimally for quite some time now.”

Kids are trapped in high-pressure test cycles

Many parents have concerns when it comes to the frequency of school tests and exams.  It seems that kids are constantly cramming for this test or that exam.  Mark says, “There is a lot of content in the curriculum.  If the school relies on summative assessment – which means you teach the content and test learners’ knowledge at the end, then they are constantly cramming facts into their heads, memorising it so that they can regurgitate it in tests.  This means that there’s a lot of assessments packed into the school year, and kids are experiencing sustained stress, which can turn into test anxiety.”

There are, of course, other ways to do assessment.  In South Africa, the IEB (Independent Examinations Board) is addressing the problem by moving away from lower order thinking assessments that focus on memorisation and repetition.  Koa Academy is an IEB-accredited school.  Mark explains, “What the IEB has said is that we want to assess for understanding and application.  So, we are going to teach learners how to think critically and how to problem solve and give them tools to solve any problem they may come across rather than learn by rote.  This means that when a child is faced with a question in the exam that they are unsure of, they feel less stress about this because they have tools to solve their problem in a creative way.  They can leverage their key skills to find a workable solution.  So you are looking at assessments that are designed to test more complex skills such critical thinking, problem solving and creativity.” 

Are assessments age-appropriate?

In South Africa, the standardized Matric exams loom over every child’s school journey and can shape a school’s assessment approach even in the early Grades.  Mark says, “What Koa is doing is looking at assessment from Grade 4 to Grade 12 and asking what’s appropriate?  The way that we are assessing a Grade 4, a nine-year-old child, should not be the way we are assessing a Grade 12 learner, an 18 year old.  We should be assessing them differently because they are at different stages of their cognitive and psycho-emotional development.  Schools must not create significant stress for young children.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t need formal assessments for earlier grades – we do, but it needs to look different and feel different.  It needs to be age appropriate.  We need to have assessments that do not provoke anxiety but also gives us an accurate measure of the learners’ progress.  So, one of the things we are doing is ongoing assessment.  Assessment doesn’t come at the end, it is built into the learning experience.  As they make their way through the lessons, they are getting constant feedback about their learning.  This is called mastery-based learning.  They learn a little, try out their learning, get a result and then loop back to try again.  We are then able to pull marks throughout their mastery-based journey to gauge how they are doing in each subject.  In the younger grades, we don’t have a routine test structure where you write your Science test on Thursday whether you are ready or not.  The majority of our assessments are asynchronous.  So when a child gets to the end of a section, the assessment becomes available to them and they complete the assessment when they are ready – and these things help to diffuse anxiety around tests.  In the older grades, we start to move our learners towards more traditional assessment rhythms because we do have to prepare them to write their matric exams – so they need this experience in order to prepare them for matric success.”

Assessment as learning

Assessment as learning is an approach to involve learners in their assessments versus the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ approach to assessment which measure their performance on a particular test but doesn’t give them any insights into their understanding and ability to apply knowledge.  Rich feedback from a teacher or their online platform empowers them to reflect on their learning, identify their own gaps or shortfalls and realise their strengths. Mark says, “This shifts the purpose of assessment from someone judging right or wrong to you learning more about your learning. It’s empowering, and as an online school we are fortunate that mastery-based learning and assessment as learning are easily built into the educational platforms that our school makes use of.  Teacher feedback is also important, which is why Koa kids are engaged in small Pods of eight with their teacher who is frequently checking in on progress and providing additional support to anyone who is experiencing a challenge.  In this way, roadblocks can be quickly identified and rectified.  We have subject specialist teachers who provide one-on-one support and regular masterclasses covering content that might be challenging to a few learners.  When assessment is embedded in your learning journey like this, it takes the anxious edge off needing to write a test, and kids start to experience assessments as something that helps them achieve mastery.”

Mark concludes, “As the educational sector, we have some way to go to meet the challenges of re-thinking assessment and making it relevant to our modern world.  However, these are the improvements that are paving the way for schools and universities to align fully with the context of the 4iR, which includes finding innovative technologies to enhance teaching and learning.”

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