On the purpose of assessment

In this blog, Professor Linda Graham discusses: What is the purpose of assessment and what relation does or should it have to the purpose of education?  

These are the questions that I find myself asking a lot lately in relation to the significant changes scheduled for senior secondary students in Queensland schools come 2019.

As a researcher in the field of inclusive education, I believe one of the forward challenges for Queensland educators is to prevent one purpose of senior school assessment (enabling selection for tertiary entry) from undermining a more fundamental purpose: determining what a student has learnt and can do.

Including students with language and/or attention difficulties

Students differ in their abilities to learn and to demonstrate their learning. While this is particularly the case for students who experience disability or learning difficulties, it does not mean that these students cannot learn, that they cannot achieve at high levels, or that they cannot pursue academic pathways, including university.

That said, students who experience language and/or attention difficulties difficulties often perform poorly in assessment and are underrepresented at university. There are many reasons for this but one is because the selection purpose of senior school assessment can dominate, at the expense of understanding what a student has learnt and can do.

This, incidentally, is why questions about the purpose of assessment cannot be considered without also questioning the purpose of education. For example:

Is the purpose of education to educate as many of our young people to the best of their ability so that they can have meaningful lives and contribute to the collective wellbeing of the society in which they live?


Is the purpose of education to apportion the benefits of that society to the fittest, fastest and most powerful (many of whom began the race with a head-start by virtue of their gender, skin colour, and family background)?

Call me idealistic but I still believe that the first is the consensus position among educators, even though the second may be the lived experience of many students with language and/or attention difficulties.

The dominance of the selection purpose is due to the scarcity of opportunities (e.g., university places) and universities’ need to determine aptitude. Together, these factors necessitate selection, which is enacted through senior school assessment.

The Senior School Race

School students in Queensland now spend 13 years of their young lives in formal schooling with those years culminating in a pressure-filled sprint across an academic obstacle course called Years 11 and 12.

Competition is fierce because the stakes are high. Future fulfillment and living standards are on the line. Senior school assessment determines which young people get what and fairness is paramount. Isn’t it?

The selection purpose of senior school assessment is informed by the concept of “merit”, which is itself informed by meritocratic beliefs; e.g., that achievement is the product of ability + hard work and success/selection is therefore merited.

Uncritical acceptance of this concept, however, requires one to also accept the corollary, which is that failure to achieve is the result of inability and a lack of hard work and, as such, non-selection is also merited.

Meritocratic thinking has been challenged by sociologists of education for decades, because it helps naturalise structural inequalities both in the provision of education and its outcomes. Teese’s Academic Success and Social Power is a brilliant example of scholarship in this important area…

Equity as fairness

The provision of inaccessible curriculum, pedagogy and/or assessment contributes to structural inequalities because each affects disabled students’ ability to learn and/or to effectively demonstrate their learning.

Making adjustments to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment is a way of equalising opportunity through design. It is a way of achieving more equitable outcomes.

Over time, however, the belief that outcomes are always the result of individual merit — together with the necessity and nature of selection — has impacted educators’ perceptions of equity.

As a result, equity is sometimes misinterpreted as “everyone getting an equal chance” to be selected, but – in the context of competitive selection – the term “equal” comes to mean that everyone must be judged using the same measure; e.g., that all students must sit the same test in the same way.

This is a fundamental misreading of the concept of equity, which is about fairness. Fairness is not about everyone getting or doing “the same”, it is about each getting what they need to address the various disadvantages faced by different groups.

There is an entire field of philosophy devoted to scholarship in this area and determining “fairness” is not as simple as it sounds. One question raises another question, which then prompts more questions (as is so often the case in philosophy). That said, there is general consensus that society has a responsibility to act in the interests of the least well-favoured.

This is why we have income redistribution in the form of taxes, why we have pensions, why we have public hospitals and public education, and why we have a National Disability Insurance Scheme.

It is also why we have legislation to prevent direct and indirect discrimination against people with disability, including students in schools regardless of sector.

In Australia, that legislation is the 1992 Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and it is underpinned by the concept of equity, which goes all the way back to Aristotle who is quoted as saying “treat equals equally and unequals unequally”.

The DDA makes it against the law to discriminate against a person because they have a disability and requires educational providers to offer students with disability the same educational opportunities as everyone else through changes known as “reasonable adjustments”.

In other words, the DDA requires educators to treat students unequally.

The associated Disability Standards for Education (DSE), first released in 2005, outline obligations for educators, one of which is to:

  • Make reasonable adjustments to assist a student with disability to participate in education and training on the same basis as other students.

Addressing barriers

The purpose of educational adjustment is to address barriers to access and participation of students with learning difficulties or disability. Preferably this is done proactively using universal design principles.

The aim is to “level the playing field” by reducing barriers that lead to direct or indirect discrimination and by providing supports to ensure that all students can take full advantage of the opportunities available to them.

The challenge, as Joy Cummings puts it, is “how to reconcile the mandatory aspects of performance with the principles of alternative ways to demonstrate knowledge and understanding“.

Or, in other words, given the various competing purposes of assessment, how do we identify and remove barriers that disadvantage one group without then advantaging that group or disadvantaging another?

This is hard intellectual work. But it is made easier by going back to that fundamental question: what is the purpose of assessment? 

If we keep the purpose of assessment firmly focused on determining what a student knows and can do, rather than allowing the ranking and selection purpose to dominate, options to address barriers to access and participation become clearer.

It is not about making assessment “easier” in academic terms. It is about making it fairer so that students with a disability are not prevented from demonstrating what they know and can do.

If we don’t do this, barriers to access and participation will continue to determine the future fulfillment and living standards of students with language and/or attention difficulties.

And that’s not very fair, is it?


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