Many schools are making changes to assessment. Across the international school sector, the rate of assessment change is broad, and the range of solutions wide. Our research report published this year, Future of Assessment in International Schools, explored how international schools are managing their assessment change and identified some of the common challenges they are facing.
Although some international schools have been working towards change for several years, Covid was the catalyst for many more such schools. The need to submit teacher-assessed grades as an alternative to external examinations highlighted the challenges of summative assessment. This, coupled with a need to know more about the students, and their wellbeing in addition to their learning progress, resulted in a significant shift towards data-gathering in order for teachers to make informed judgements to support personalised learning.
“The need to submit teacher-assessed grades as an alternative to external examinations highlighted the challenges of summative assessment.”
Seventy-three per cent of the international schools that we have researched (mostly in the premium fee and mid-market fee sectors) told us they are now using digital platforms as part of their student assessment. Seventy-seven per cent said they had used new forms of digital assessment during campus closures in order to gather and analyse data.
The advancement of technology skills by school staff, along with the technology solutions increasingly available, are enabling some schools to move towards more authentic personalised learning, informed by rigorous and efficient approaches to formative assessment.
Our research tells us that most international school leaders agree on the value of formative assessment, which may be the reason for the increasing number of schools using it to differentiate learning. However, it’s not an easy change, as school leaders we have interviewed make clear.
Challenges for a small school
Myna Anderson is the director of Banjul American International School in The Gambia: a remote international school with 64 students, limited resources, poor internet access, and staff who have to take multiple roles.
“Our teachers understand how to set standards, how to identify what they’re looking for, but still feel more comfortable calculating a percentage grade instead of truly assessing against standards”, Myna told us. “I think it’s a safety net; they feel safe if there’s a calculation, that it’s not subjective when they use numbers to make the current determination.”
“Better staff skills, along with more readily available technology, are enabling a move towards more authentic personalised learning.”
Most school management data systems are out of the school’s budget range. “All schools should have access to an open-source solution; something out there for anybody, like us, a school faculty that knows what good teaching and learning look like and who want to use a system, but simply can’t afford it,” she added.
The catalyst for change
At The Columbus School in Colombia, which serves 1,800 children, the pandemic has been a catalyst for change. “Covid made it challenging for teachers to rely on traditional assessments, so many teachers started introducing performance tasks, portfolios, or learning conversations”, said assistant director of learning for curriculum development, Britta McCarthy.
Since everyone has returned to campus, the technology that was seen as valuable by staff continues to be used. “We have several platforms that are giving us targeted data points to understand our students in the moment, rather than waiting for data by semester from our MAP testing,” she said.
“We definitely see the platforms are a benefit for us; they’re giving us more data about how our students are doing academically. For now, we are using this academic information to help move a child forward. They have also helped us communicate information to parents, but it doesn’t yet feel like the technology platforms and assessments are helping us to make our relationships stronger with each student on a socioemotional level.”
Time to develop skills
In Malad, India, Meenakshi Kilpady, principal of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan International School, said that staff spent a year exploring various apps and developing their skills to move away from pen and paper assessment. Whilst staff dramatically improved their technology skills during campus closures, Meenakshi believes they now need time and space before moving further on their assessment journey.
As she said: “The greatest shift during Covid had to be made by teachers, and so we’re giving them two years to integrate what we are now doing. Taking time is an important part of the move to a more data-led approach to assessing and supporting student progress. For me, the first year was learning how to make sense of what I had in front of me. Looking beyond the easy numbers, to identifying which subjects a child is getting better at, and where they are lagging behind, that took some time to figure out.”
Moving towards data-led assessment
At King’s College, The British School of Madrid, headteacher Matthew Taylor has been leading a school-wide journey towards data-led assessment. “It has only been possible through a greater use of technology”, he told us. The school has combined the CAT4 assessment platform as a placement tool, with a traffic light system for tracking a range of attitudes to learning (such as participating in class activities, completing tasks on time and, in the senior years, independent learning skills), which are all integrated into the school’s management information system.
“Teachers can see, at a glance, data on attitudes to learning alongside academic progress scoring.”
“We’ve abolished placement of where students are in the class or year group, and progress is contextualised to the child”, Matthew said. “Teachers can see, at a glance, data on attitudes to learning alongside academic progress scoring. That allows us to spot patterns emerging which helps us to provide timely interventions. We want to get to a point where everything we get from data is there to support the personalisation of learning for each individual child.”
Matthew emphasised that sufficient time was essential to move the initiative forward successfully. “We’ve moved from a point, four years ago, when staff were looking in concern at the data, to it now being a rewarding exercise they can use to learn about the child, and to target interventions more appropriately. There are now far more data-led conversations between the staff.”
A UWC group change
I was able to continue some of our research-led conversations during a webinar that’s now accessible for all on the ISC Research Heads Up podcast series. As part of this Future of Assessment webinar, I spoke with Gabriel Ernesto Abad Fernández, head of United World College (UWC) Dilijan. He is chair of the UWC Heads Group and, although all 18 United World Colleges are different, Gabriel said they all agree that the way they do assessment needs to change.
“The commodification of education is turning high-stakes assessment into a weapons race. While some teenagers will procrastinate, others see every single assessment task as a life-defining moment that has the potential to close doors for them. This is antithetical to the idea of experiential learning, which is integral to the UWC educational model”, he explained.
“The commodification of education is turning high-stakes assessment into a weapons race.”
Working with the International Baccalaureate, the United World Colleges are exploring a new approach to assessment centred around student engagement and triangulating with a self-reflection wellbeing app. “We’re focusing on how we’re making sure that students engage in their learning in a constructive way that’s healthy and contributes to their wellbeing”, he said. “To triangulate these points [in order to] engage with students in conversations, this is a life-changer in the way we approach education.”
Assessment dashboards for all
Ben Marsh, director at International School of Myanmar, also joined me on the webinar. He too has been leading a school-wide approach to assessment change. “Like a lot of schools, we have lots of data on students all over the place and, until recently, only a few people really had access to it. So we partnered with a company to support us in putting all that data into dashboards for us.”
Ben added: “This includes a dashboard for the leadership team that allows us to look at whole-school data trends, and track and map them all the way through the school to identify our strengths and areas needing focus.
“Then we have dashboards for teachers, giving them access to comparative data on their students which allows them to group the students in different areas and clusters, and use it to inform individual student learning progress. We’re also launching a similar dashboard for students and parents to give them an individual student view.
“For us, technology really is paramount. The second part of the strategy was training our teachers so that they can now lead data conversations and facilitate meetings where they are able to look at the data, run through the circle of enquiry, put in interventions, and then see if the intervention is working.’
A plea to tech developers
There have been several requests to tech providers during our research conversations. Most of these relate to providing flexibility with platforms so that assessment criteria, data collection and analysis can be adjusted to the requirements of every school. As Meenakshi Kilpady summarised: ‘Right now, tech companies have their product in a box and, as a school, you have to take the whole box and we can’t change the shape or size. That doesn’t work well for schools’.
Janelle Torres is Research Manager for South East Asia at ISC Research. Her Future of Assessment podcast is part of the ISC Research Heads Up podcast series which is available on most podcast platforms. Email: email@example.com
This article first appeared in the latest print edition of International School Magazine, out now.