I’ve been at the 5th Assessment in Higher Education Conference, now truly international, and a superb conference. As in 2013, the conference was at Maple House in Birmingham. With 200 delegates we filled the venue completely, but it was a deliberate decision to use the same venue and to keep the conference relatively small. As the conference goes from strength to strength we will need to review that decision again for 2017, but a small and friendly conference has a lot to commend it. We had some ‘big names’, with Masterclasses from David Boud, David Carless, Tansy Jessop and Margaret Price, and keynotes from Maddalena Taras and Jo-Anne Baird. There were also practitioners from a variety of backgrounds and with varying knowledge of assessment literature.
For various reasons I attended some talks that only attracted small audiences, but I learnt a lot from these. One talk that had a lot of resonance with my own experience was Robert Prince’s presentation on “Placement for Access and a fair chance of success in South African Higher Education institutions”. Robert talked about the different educational success of students of different ethnicity, both at School and at South African HE institutions. The differences are really shocking. They are seeking to address the situation at school level, but Robert rightly recognises that universities also need to be able to respond appropriately to students from different backgrounds, perhaps allowing the qualification to be completed over a longer period of time.
Robert went on to talk about the ‘National Benchmark Tests (NBT)’ Project, which has produced tests of academic literacy, quantitative literacy and mathematics. The really scary, though sadly predictable, finding is that the National Benchmark Tests are extremely good at predicting outcome. But the hope is that the tests can be used to direct students to extended or flexible programmes of study.
In my mind, Robert’s talk sits alongside Gwyneth Hughes’s talk on ipsative assessment i.e. assessing the progress of an individual student (looking for ‘value added’). Gwyneth talked about ways in which ipsative assessment (with a grade for progress) might be combined with conventional summative assessment, but that for me is the problem area. If we are assessing someone’s progress and they have just not progressed far enough I’m not convinced it is helpful to use the same assessment as for students who are flying high.
But the important thing is that we are looking at the needs of individual students rather than teaching and assessing a phantom average student.