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Developing effective assessment systems to improve learning for all

The Main Maths and Science CoP’s first guest speaker of 2017, Prof. Anil Kanjee of the Tshwane University of Technology, presented an inspiring view of the potential for assessment to improve the quality of teaching and learning in South Africa.  

Prof. Kanjee sees our education system as fundamentally lacking in equity and quality. While there are examples of quality, it is quality for the few, and the many learners who slip out of the system or are not able to function at the requisite grade level, emphasise the extent of the equity challenge.

The potential to improve learner performance lies in the areas of curriculum, teaching, and assessment, and of these three the area that holds the most promise, particularly for marginalised learners, is assessment. However, we in South Africa tend to conflate assessment and measurement, and it is vital that we make a clear distinction between them. Measurement is related to getting and keeping scores, while assessment is a process of identifying what learners know and can do, and how to improve what learners know and can do.

An effective, enabling assessment system would place classroom assessment at the centre. Currently classroom assessment, although it is the most important for the learner and holds the greatest potential for improving learning, is the last to be considered:

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How can our focus be redirected towards enabling effective classroom assessment?    

-Measurement should be linked to better ways of reporting that allow teachers to use the information from large scale surveys at classroom level.

-At school and district level, evidence-based reporting should focus on specific learning achieved (not only in terms of percentages and averages, but in terms of how many learners have actually improved and by how much).

-Most importantly, teachers need to engage learners in the classroom and use formative assessment effectively.

Engaging learners means making sure every child feels wanted and is part of the session, and giving everyone an opportunity to be heard. Learners attend more closely to the lesson, and the teacher is better able to identify and respond to issues. Some effective techniques to enhance learner engagement include:

-making sure learners know what they are learning and how to check that they have learnt it

-using name sticks to call on learners randomly, instead of learners putting their hands up

-using exit tickets for quick learner feedback (e.g. one new thing I learnt and one question I still have).

Prof. Kanjee argues for a broad understanding of formative assessment as assessment that leads to improved learner performance, including informal questioning. Its value lies in the way teachers use the information gathered to benefit learners, which should include immediate direct feedback. To be effective, marking comments have to provide guidance on what is expected and what the learner can do in order to improve. Peer assessment also features positively, provided learners have been shown how to engage and give feedback constructively.

Two projects in the pipeline include developing a national reporting framework in association with the DBE  to better engage with teachers about their results; and publishing two easy-to-use books on formative and summative assessment that teachers will be able to use in an integrated way with their classes, while developing their own capacity.  

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