Why do we assess?

A brief personal reflection

Clifton suspension bridge and observatory

I am an educator, and I am a parent. Although the two roles often overlap, there are times when tensions become evident and make me take a step back and reflect. This is one of those times; my own child is now up against the demands of her final two years in school, and feeling the exam pressure that comes with this final stretch of her school path. Then, the question that arises as I see her negotiate the labyrinth that the school system has set up for her (and her peers) is rather basic: why is she being assessed in class? 

The answer might seem plain and uncomplicated, but it is not. There are several forces that push and pull her in and out of her path in a convoluted struggle for final grades. She has been immersed in International Baccalaureate (IB) ® programmes from a very early age, and has developed a practical understanding of criterion-based assessments; therefore, the goal for her seems to be quite straightforward: she wants to know what her strengths and weaknesses are to drive her improvement process and achieve the best results possible. Then, there is the universities’ force; they want reliable assessment data to select the students that will do well in the programmes they offer. As Sir Ken Robertson once put it; schools can be seen as protracted university entrance entities, and the teachers are perhaps the ones who are caught in the middle of this system. On the one had, educators want to facilitate students’ learning and wellbeing, but their success is largely judged based on results (exam scores and university entrance rates). They face incredible pressure as their performance and worth as educators will be largely judged based on their pupils’ final exams results.

The school is also a contender in this power struggle for the use of assessment data. In July 2025 when my daughter’s exam results will be published, I am going to see a plethora of publications in my LinkedIn feed and other social media advertising the success of their students. Very few, if any at all, will recognise those who showed tremendous improvement but did not quite make it to the top percentile. However, many will list their top grades and high achievers, the As, the forty pluses, those admitted to Ivy League institutions. These schools want to project an image of prestige and advertise their ability to deliver the product universities want.  In other words, the spotlight will not be on improvement but on winners. My child, and those learners who work hard to improve, will only matter statistically if they reach the acclaimed ninety-fifth percentile. 

One might argue that this should not be a problem; after all, this seems to be a well-established way of determining success. I must admit that my first go-to criteria when finding a new film to watch is to see if it has won any reputable awards. The same is true for books. If I run out of recommendations, I normally seek Nobel Prize winners that I have not read. From sports to politics, we all seem to like and celebrate the best of the best – although the definition of best might vary depending on several factors. However, I would defend that such model is not suitable for educational purposes; students should be recognised on their own growth, and not be pitted against each other in a quest that will lose all meaning once their school life is over. Unlike organisations that recognise films and books, the role of education is to help all students and celebrate their progress, not just the ones with the highest scores. Assessment’s main purpose is then to guide students through a path of constant improvement. From there, other purposes can stem: determining readiness for a certain course (including university courses), informing action plans for schools, changes in interventions, and more.

It may sound cliché, but the world is indeed changing. More and more young people are choosing paths that do not involve entering universities, in some places there is excessive supply of certain professions, and – to cite Robinson again – schools are preparing pupils for a very uncertain future. There is a pressing and urgent need to develop independent learners who can self assess and determine how they can grow and improve. This means that the role of assessment is nothing more than to serve as a reliable tool for the improvement of learning skills; an instrument that can accurately help them choose a path to get better, to get excited about learning and growing.

Does my passport define me?

Reflecting on equality in the international schools’ world

Potter. Jaipur, India, 2019

“International schools’ hiring processes and policies discriminate!” That was the first line of a post on a Facebook group for international educators that I follow. Having just tendered my resignation and being “open for opportunities,” I must admit that the idea added to my stress and made me question the timeliness of my decision. Not only was I looking for a job in the middle of a global pandemic but also a Colombian passport holder competing in a job market that is dominated by a select group of nationalities. What I was to encounter in the months to come both challenged and confirmed that assertion. 

As soon as my resignation was official, some concerned colleagues reinforced my fears and encouraged me to reverse my decision, so that I would secure my job and remain within the comfort zone of certain employment. Others, on the other hand, offered words of encouragement and supported me in my quest. To both sides, I am grateful, for their words came from authentic concern and a desire to help me. However, the fact that several people felt the need to share their anxiety was another feather on the worrying hat that I was wearing. Despite much hesitation and uncertainty, my family and I decided that it was the right time to seek new horizons and embarked on a journey of hope in treacherous times.

One of the claims the Facebook post made had to do with a lack of opportunity for those who do not have the privilege of a British, a Canadian, an American, or an Australian passport. That was not my experience. Despite the variety of approaches to the hiring and interview procedures (some more rigorous than others, but that’s another matter entirely), from October to mid-February I had more than a dozen schools express interest in my profile, and they invited me for interviews via various platforms. Although some might argue most schools chose more “mainstream” passport holders over me, I feel that in most cases I was given a fair chance to present myself as the right person for the job, and I am certain those who were selected are – in all fairness – the best fit for the job. As a matter of fact, I ended up signing a contract and had the luxury of choosing amongst a few options available to me. So no; as a Colombian passport holder and a non-native speaker of English, I never felt opportunity was in short supply.

The conversation about diversity and equality in international schools is open, and organizations have publicly and honestly brought up the issue of equity and discrimination in the international teaching context. Similarly, many international schools are actively seeking diversity in their teaching and leadership staff to better reflect the values of their missions and visions, so I am certain this newly found awareness had much to do with my success. However, this does not mean that discrimination has been eradicated in the world of international schools. 

More than ten years ago, when I went on board this international education quest, the organizers of one of the job fairs I wanted to sign up for bluntly replied that my profile would not be attractive to schools because I was not “a first-world passport holder.” In the job fair that I did attend back then, a few recruiters asked if I had another passport as it would be difficult to justify hiring a Colombian. In the end, I encountered hope and a few schools offered me the chance to interview, which led to my success in the fair. Not everything was dire then.

These blatant displays of bigotry have not entirely disappeared and I hear colleagues share their distasteful encounters with the prejudice that is undeniably present in our context. So no; the job is not done yet. Some nationalities are over-represented in the international schools’ context, the term native-speaker is loosely used to close doors to competitive candidates, and oftentimes a passport weighs more than an impressive resumé. Nonetheless, we are most definitely miles ahead from the “in your face” bigotry I experienced ten years ago, and despite the abundant discrimination, more and more schools and organizations are able to look beyond the passport to find highly qualified educators. 

Reading Buddies: The Power of Purpose

Some time ago, when Patricia, my PYP colleague, asked me if I could help her find an MYP group for a reading buddies project I checked the schedule, and the only suitable option I found did not precisely encourage me to go ahead with the idea. The MYP class that we could pair up with Patricia’s group presented some behavior challenges in the library (the school had scheduled one library lesson a week to encourage students to read for pleasure), and there had been some incidents that simply did not give us great confidence in the success of the project. However, we decided to give it a go, to try before giving up.

The outcome quickly impressed us. Kids who had previously been late to library lessons were now waiting for their PYP reading buddies at the door. Suddenly, one simple explanation of a task at the beginning of a class sufficed, and everybody was up and about finding books, flipping pages, and collaborating with their younger peers. All of this was something we were very pleased to witness, but the surprises did not stop there. When the primary students were unable to come to the library, the teenagers were effortlessly grabbing books and seemed more likely to settle down and read. Not only had the behavior of the students changed when their reading buddies were around, their attitude towards reading was shifting.

Some time ago, I came across a Facebook post that had a picture of a man playing darts and a caption that said something like “you miss all the shots you don’t take.” When given the chance, these students became caring members of their community and were learning, perhaps without fully realizing it, because their actions had a purpose. As teachers, we sometimes miss opportunities to facilitate meaningful learning experiences because we are unwilling to “take the shot.”

Darts picture taken from https://www.maxpixel.net/Target-180-Darts-One-Eighty-Hundred-And-Goal-2148653

Relevant feedback

One of the most important aspects of language teaching and learning (and of any kind of teaching, we’d argue) is feedback. It helps students make tangible progress and facilitates differentiation. Although it is commonly practiced, it is also often feared and misused.After discussion with some educators, we have put together a few tips to help you get the most out of your (summative and formative) assessment tasks:
1. Feedback must be timely: bearing in mind that the main purpose of assessment is to help students develop their language proficiency and not reporting, we must remember that the sooner we provide students with clear and specific advice, the better they will understand and assimilate feedback. As IB Educator Kim Edwards puts it, “in feedback, timely is transparent.
2. Choose what to address: overwhelming students with notes and advice will not help them improve. Let’s appeal to Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development,” and target a couple of aspects that students need to master before moving up to the next level.
3. Make students accountable by having them set targets and define specific actions they will take to improve. The key is to be specific and not too ambitious. For instance, a student who was struggling with reading came up with the following target: – “From Monday to Friday I will read one article a day on www.newsela.com.”