English in Education, Spring 2017: Assessment and Learning

Are all thy conquests, glories, spoils, Shrunk to this little measure?

Julius Caesar, Act III, scene I

Annie Harris, Guest Editor

Associate Dean, School of Education & Professional Development, University of Huddersfield

What is assessment andAnnie_Huddersfield_1 how can we, as educators, ensure assessment of learning, and perhaps more particularly assessment for learning?   During the last thirty years, in many English-speaking countries, change has been endemic in the teaching and assessment of English. Some developments have been based on research related to key issues such as linguistic deprivation (Bernstein 1971), teaching language (Kingman 1988) or early reading (Rose 2006). Others, such as the recent curtailment (in the UK and elsewhere) of coursework, seem motivated more by political partisanship. The effects of such changes in assessment and public examining practice are documented in several papers in this issue, most explicitly in Bethan Marshall’s The Politics of Testing.

Debates around assessment in English have included the nature of assessment and what it measures, as well as debates around validity and reliability, ‘subjective’ or impression marking, and notions of a more ‘objective’ professional judgment. Accountability has also been prominent, especially for stakeholders, since public examining, particularly in the later stages of schooling, represents ‘high stakes’ assessment. Yet where does that leave learning? How can we best judge whether learning has taken place and if credit is due? Do we need base-line assessment to determine whether learning has occurred or value has been added? How is familiarity with testing regimes likely to affect the way in which we teach and what learners learn? This special edition takes on some of these debates and examines them in a contemporary context.

The distinction between assessment of learning (summative) and assessment for learning (formative) has been well rehearsed, but the more recent assessment as learning focuses where we might locate more recent, 21st century development.   This implies the need for pupils to be active in both learning and assessment. Some of these ideas will not be new to English teachers, for whom the pragmatics of a creative and critical classroom have often demanded the involvement of the student in the process of pedagogy. Each of the articles in this special edition challenges ideas of assessment and learning, presenting alternative perspectives on how one might accommodate both,  from primary schooling through to post-sixteen senior secondary studies.

Nerida Spina’s article, Governing by numbers, offers a detailed analysis of the impact of the Australian national testing programme, NAPLAN, undertaken at grades 3, 5, 7 and 9, which assesses literacy in terms of spelling, grammar, punctuation, reading and writing. Spina’s institutional ethnographic study indicates how this emphasis on examining with its concomitant pressure on schools has undermined both the curriculum and opportunities for classroom creativity.

Bethan Marshall’s account of The Politics of Testing picks up this argument, initially by looking back fondly to a time in the UK when teachers and educators could comment on the examining system ‘and the exam boards listened’. Her article then goes on to address in turn the phonics screening test, key stage 2 literacy and GCSE English, and the effect of ‘politics, even party politics’ on assessment processes.

Tony Hall and Eilis Flanagan’s article on Digital Ensemble presents an innovative approach to English assessment through the integration of drama pedagogy and mobile computing with senior students. Those of us outside the Republic of Ireland are left to speculate, given its value and significance, what scope, if any, there might be for us to do something equally creative in assessment and learning.

Jonathan Glazzard gives us an account of synthetic phonics and the impact of the phonics screening test in relation to models and theories of reading development in UK primary schools. Glazzard’s account questions the compartmentalisation of reading skills, and he argues for a developmental framework which recognises the phases and stages in sequential reading skills development.

Victoria Elliott’s paper What does a good one look like? takes us behind closed doors to observe two examiner training meetings. The training deemed to take place through these meetings is evaluated through the interaction and notions of compliance with the mark scheme, standardisation, representativeness, and cognition. Examining, the article reveals, is a process fraught with challenges and contradictions as well as with significance.

John Hodgson’s article with Bill Greenwell, The work of the course: validity and reliability in assessing English Literature, describes an ‘alternative’ UK English literature syllabus from the 20th century where informed response to literature was encouraged. Students genuinely did their coursework throughout the course, and teachers, who were familiar with their students’ work, were cradled within the developmental context of a consensual and supportive moderation process.

The book reviews in this special edition focus not so much on assessment as on learning, yet in doing so they offer thoughtful comments on where we place value and significance. Marcello Giovanelli discusses The Discourse of Reading Groups: Integrating Cognitive and Sociocultural Perspectives (2016) by David Peplow, Joan Swann, Paola Trimarco and Sara Whiteley.   Andrew Burn looks at James Gee’s Literacy and Education (2015), a book by an author familiar with the field and one which provides lively examples as well as revisiting his ‘Big D’ notion of discourses. .

Jo Carrington’s poem Remember me reminds us of the implications of and the responsibility that comes with teaching and learning within a curriculum that at times might appear neither to permit flexibility in its assessment nor fully to acknowledge individual needs. Hopefully, the articles in this special edition will remind us that knowledge and understanding of process and of practice as well as creativity and professionalism are fundamental to ensuring that our pupils and students, whoever they are, are given a fair chance to succeed through the learning and assessment they experience.

This special issue is now available online and print subscribers will receive their copy shortly.   If you are a NATE member and cannot access the online publication, please email membership@nate.org.uk with your name and membership number to receive a unique code.