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Teaching has normally been perceived as a significant factor influencing the learning of students. Effective assessment aims at improving teaching and learning. Elton & Laurillard (1979), however, approached learning differently by pointing out the tremendous change assessment brought to teaching and learning. They suggested that "the quickest way to change student learning is to change the assessment system" (p. 100). Popham (2003) shared the same thought by stressing the close connection between testing and teaching. Students in Mauritius have experienced such change over the last decade as the educational system has been in the process of undergoing a large-scale curriculum reform. The learning of students is jeopardized by highly selective and competitive assessment modes. Taking into account the increasing criticism in the educational field on high stakes examinations of having harmful effect on student learning and that it should be reduced to a minimum (Harlem and Crick, 2003; Morrison and Tang, 2002; Black, 1998). Black and Wiliam (1998) indicated that formative assessment, if properly implemented in schools, is a powerful means to improve student learning.
In the international scenarios, formative assessment has already been practiced in schools in various western countries including Australia, Canada, Denmark, England, Finland, Italy, New Zealand and Scotland (OECD, 2005). Notably, the education policy makers in Mauritius had acknowledged the inherent benefits of continuous assessment in improving educational quality as reflected in the 2006 Education Reform. The need for assessment reform in Mauritius has been increasing over the last decades since its independence. The importance of changing assessment practices for improving teaching and learning has contributed to critical discussions in major reform policy documents. Curriculum change will not effect without making corresponding changes in assessment. These changes include more emphasis on "assessment for learning" than "assessment of learning". The former was characterized by its "formative" nature while the latter, the "summative" nature. It is generally believed that "the better the teacher knows her or his students, through processes of formative assessment, the less likely it is that the information is used to inform judgments made about the student" (Black & Wiliam, 2005). It is high time to make critical reflections on the effectiveness of assessment reform on the teaching and learning in School Certificate examination. The introduction of "Towards a Quality Curriculum in 2006" for more comprehensive assessment systems that will impact positively on learning achievement, has prompted educational policy to re-affirm the importance of continuous assessment in enhancing education quality. Therefore, the latest Mauritian education policy dubbed "World Class Quality Education for All" advocates the use of continuous assessment in its education system. The major content of this paper is made up of: (1) a background of assessment reform, (2) a new understanding of assessment: "assessment for learning", (3) the changing assessment practices in schools, and (4) the way forward in assessment: a balance across formative and summative assessments, (5) the implementation of continuous assessment (formative assessment), focusing on the shift from emphasizing continuous testing to emphasizing continuous assessment.
Assessment System in Mauritius at present:
The education system in Mauritius is based upon the structure of the British education system. Mauritius secondary education has a very significant role in Mauritius education as it is considered to be the final stage of leaving school and entering the world of higher education.
The secondary education in Mauritius continues for 5 consecutive years. At the end of the course, students sit for the Cambridge School Certificate Examinations. The major form of assessment that is employed by the secondary school teachers in Mauritius is through summative assessment. Therefore, the current assessment, that is the Cambridge School Certificate Examinations is mainly a summative examination, deeply entrenched in an examination-oriented discourse. Thus the present summative assessment is increasingly used for accountability purposes and is highly formalised. It is used as a measure of the success of a teacher or a school in terms of the progress made by pupils between assessment points. Assessment information is also used to determine:
â€¢ the effectiveness of the curriculum, any
course of study, or particular materials or resources
â€¢ the strengths and weaknesses of the
teaching, or the performance of a teacher, a department or a school.
This actual form of assessment is on assessment of learning rather than assessment for learning. Students are still taught through traditional ways such as drill and practice because the nature of the current assessment that School Certificate students undergo still require rote memorization of procedures and laying much emphasis on presenting the correct answer. The presence of high stake testing usually in the form of national or external examination which is summative in nature has far reaching effects, positive or negative on parents, students and teachers, and the teaching and learning in the classroom. Our secondary schools use what may be termed as the classical approach when assessing their students' performance-one that relies heavily on tools such as tests and final exams geared to reinforce the ability to retain material and regurgitate it for exams purpose. What we are, therefore, producing are citizens with excellent memories but little or no ability at thinking critically, independently, laterally and creatively. In broad, the current assessment practices do not fit the needs and demands of today's information and knowledge societies. Nowadays, the society requires learners to become problem solvers and creative thinkers in all subjects and areas. These needs are not reflected on the current assessment practices for both learners and teachers. There is an acute recommendation for fundamental change as regards to the actual assessment system. Instead of using a competitive and selective approach, the present educational system should implement assessment, precisely more formative assessment. Formative assessments unlike summative, are able to evaluate students' ability to communicate, reason, make connections and use technology, thus making teaching and learning closer to the 'real-world' activities. The most crucial use of formative assessment remains to help learning and reduce the gap between higher and lowers achieving children. This enhances reliability and validity concepts as well as inclusion among every pupils.
SUMMATIVE PURPOSES OF CAMBRIDGE SCHOOL CERTIFICATE IN MAURITIUS:
Secondary education is divided into two cycles. The first cycle of five years' duration, is divided into two stages: students in Form 1-3 follow a more or less common general courses; Form 4-5 prepare students for the Cambridge School Certificate (O-level) and cover both core subjects and a wide range of options. The Cambridge School Certificate (O-level) is a 'high stake' assessment practice, primarily conducted through public examinations away from the direct control of the teacher and the school. In such assessments, candidates scripts sitting for the Cambridge School Certificate (O-level) are sent to the University of Cambridge-an external examining body which marks the scripts, grades them and report back the results to the candidates- usually at the end of the School Certificate (O-level) course. In a nutshell, we feel that our schooling system places too much emphasis on summative which is largely out of the control of the classroom teacher and not enough on formative assessment. It lacks a holistic focus, obsessed as it is with focusing on the intellectual component which it wants reduced to "pass" or "fail".
ANY FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT INVOLVED:
Formative assessment exists in the form monthly tests which are prepared by subject teachers at school. Those monthly tests do not contribute for the end of year examination. Teachers rather emphasize on giving classworks and homeworks to students. Constantly observing them doing any task and then making judgements about how well the pupils are performing the task is not one of the main task of any teacher. Instead, teachers wait up to the end of the term, semester or a cycle to do revision work in classrooms in order to help low performing learners to solve their difficulties in their learning process.
DEEP APPROACHES TO LEARNING:
The perspective of students' learning evaluation has been changing from what we call
examination-oriented education to quality-oriented education, whose intention is to
develop students' creativity and practical abilities. What is meant by "deep approaches to learning", these are associated with students' intentions to understand and construct the meaning of the learned content, whereas surface approaches to learning refer to students' intentions to learn by memorizing and reproducing the factual contents of the study materials (Gijbels et al., 2005a, 2005b).
Depending on the assessment method used, students tend to shift between 'surface'
memorizing or 'deep' understanding approaches. As a consequence, assessment
should no longer merely be seen as something separate from instruction, administered
at the end of the learning process, but also as a powerful tool for promoting deep
learning activities (Dochy & McDowell, 1997; Sambell et al., 1997). The plea for
aligning learning, instruction and assessment, within the context of current learning
theories, has led to changing insights into assessment. As such, there is a strong
emphasis on the integration of learning, instruction and assessment.
Is It True That Formative Assessment is better than Summative Assessment?
Purposes and Benefits of Formative Assessment:
Formative assessment has been shown to be highly effective in raising the level of student attainment, increasing equity of student outcomes, and improving students' ability to learn. The topic of formative assessment has been extensively reviewed by Black and William (1998a). On the basis of their review of 250 pieces of research literature, they concluded that frequent feedback from the teacher to the learner, using assessment evidence, can 'yield substantial learning gains' (p.7). That is, by using formative assessment methods teachers can bring about measurable improvements in student performance.
Improves Equity of Student Outcomes:
Formative assessment also improves equity of student outcomes. Schools which use formative assessment show not only general gains in academic achievement, but also particularly high gains for previously underachieving students. Attendance and retention of learning are also improved, as well as the quality of students' work. Hence
Reduces the Gap Between High Achievers and Low Achievers:
Formative assessment is used to help learning and reduce the gap between higher and lower achieving children. This mode of assessment may be particularly helpful to lower achieving students because it emphasizes that students can improve as a result of effort rather than be doomed to low achievement due to some presumed lack of innate ability.
Builds Students' "Learning to Learn" Skills:
Formative assessment builds students' "learning to learn" skills by emphasising the process of teaching and learning, and involving students as partners in that process. It also builds students' skills at peer-assessment and self-assessment, and helps them develop a range of effective learning strategies. Students who are actively building their understanding of new concepts (rather than merely absorbing information) and who are learning to judge the quality of their own and their peers' work against well-defined criteria are developing invaluable skills for lifelong learning. This promotes validity due to the fact that multiple methods are being used for assessment purposes.
New understanding of assessment: "Assessment for Learning"
Since the need for ranking has been eliminated at the primary level, the demand for change in assessment has become one of the topics of discussion for improving teaching and learning already mentioned in the educational reform 2006. Certainly, here, the implementation of formative assessment can play a key role in the assessment system of Mauritius. In the Educational Report 2006 Part 4.0, the Government specified the need to cater for individual differences in learning and to monitor assessment of outcomes:
â€¦because "assessment forms an integral part of the curriculum. It provides a framework within
which standards may be set and student's achievement and progress charted.
As proposed in the reform document 2006, the purpose of assessment need to be based on the following guiding principles:
(1) Assessment should provide information about student's achievement.
(2) It should provide a basis for feedback to teachers and students themselves so that
remedial actions can be taken.
(3) Assessment should be based on agreed criteria which would be the basis for
mapping the child's progressâ€¦"
The same concerns about improving teaching and learning were raised again in the same Report on Assessment of Student Performance, with "formative assessment" as one distinctive direction for its development:
Methods of assessment that can provide useful feedback for formative purposes should
be used. These can take the form of chart progress, record cards, portfolios, profiles for
documenting evidence and process-oriented tasks.
At the primary and secondary level, more emphasis should be placed on continuous
assessment so that it provides adequate feedback for diagnosing the weaknesses of
children for remedial action.
The concepts of "formative assessment" and "summative assessment" were repeatedly defined in the reform documents. Here are two frequently used definitions:
Formative assessment can be used to collect evidence from time to time on student learning with a view to promoting better learning.
Summative assessment is often carried out through pen and paper tests and examinations at the end of a learning and teaching cycle. (ibid)
The idea of formative assessment also includes the conception of "assessment for learning". This new assessment concept has been made distinctive by making contrast to "assessment of learning". Any assessment for which the first priority in its design and practice is to serve the purpose of promoting students learning can be considered "assessment for learning" (Black et al, 2002).
Moreover, public assessment with solely selective functions like Cambridge School Certificate (GCSE) and Cambridge Higher School Certificate (A-Level) need to be reviewed. In line with the educational reform, a National Assessment was proposed for the Form III level to evaluate the
core competencies acquired by students in Numeracy, Literacy, Basic Science and ICT.
This assessment will measure not only the competencies developed in the course of
secondary education but will also include the wide array of competencies developed by
the student throughout his schooling.
The outcome of this National Assessment will be the Award of an Achievement
Certificate stating the level attained by each student on the core competencies. Each
and every child at the end of Form III will be awarded a certificate that recognizes the
achievement of the student independently of the level achieved. It will also provide
opportunities to students of pre-vocational and mainstream to switch pathways if they so
In addition to the above and, in line with the principle used for including continuous
assessment at the CPE level in the medium term, it was suggested that,
progressively, an element of continuous assessment regarding life skills be integrated in
the National Achievement Certificate.
The School Certificate and Higher School Certificate format of Qualifications would
need to be reviewed for more flexibility, with a broader curriculum and less rigid subject
combination, coursework as a compulsory component, the introduction of modular
syllabuses and the accumulation of credits.(Strategy for Reform, Nov 2006).
PROPOSED STRATEGIES FOR THE IMPROVEMENT IN THE CAMBRIDGE SCHOOL CERTIFICATE EXAMINATIONS:
In the previous sections, we have outlined the current assessment practices which has a tendency to focus mainly on the assessment of learning, or testing. Until today, most assessment in Mauritius are of the written summative kind more precisely three summative tests are being done, one at the end of pupils' primary year, one at the end of lower secondary level known as the Cambridge School Certificate, O-Level and one at the end of higher secondary level known as the Higher School Certificate (HSC or A-Level). Without any doubt, this type of assessment is largely failing to address Assessment for learning, assessment as a means to improve learners progression in their studies. Therefore, the actual mode of assessment does not meet validity and reliability criteria. In the light of what precedes, we believe that the following core strategies need to be implemented if meaningful reform to our educational system is to succeed.
The curriculum document recommended that assessment be conducted on a continuous basis
throughout the school year and assessment task should include "progress monitoring of students" and consequently meeting validity and reliability criteria (Reform Doc, 2006, p.20).
By implementing continuous assessment, it is hoped that greater emphasis will be
placed on student-centred learning and activity oriented pedagogy. Thus, the complexity of a child's performance cannot be described by undergoing a single type of assessment activity. Some of
the different types of school based assessment that teachers will be interested to carry
out in a semester might include: group discussions among peers, class discussions, mathematical thinking problem solving, oral presentations, project work, written assignment and creative work.
Consequently, in making formative assessment a reality in the classroom, this will allow teachers to:
â€¢ get useful information about individual learners' progress from continuous assessments, i.e. through formative assessment modes;
â€¢ spend time focusing on developing the teaching of the curriculum instead of teaching to the test;
â€¢ spend less time with the preparation and administration of summative assessments (e.g. Cambridge School Certificate, O-level and A-level, end of year exams);
Similarly, the implementation of more formative assessment would allow learners to:
â€¢ test themselves both independently and by the teacher when appropriate as a means to review
â€¢ unlike summative assessment, the implementation of formative assessment would be less and less viewed as 'tests' and gradually become part of a 'task set'. This could be extremely beneficial as a means to motivate learners;
â€¢ the implementation of formative assessment allow learners to get information about their individual learning progression, i.e. allow for formative self-assessment;
â€¢ the development and implementation of formative assessment would contribute to developing learner autonomy and the development of problem solving skills.
Secondly, hand-in-hand with the "Quality Curriculum Reform", there is the urgent need to review the current summative assessment practices. Therefore, teachers have very little choice but to teach according to these existing assessment systems due to a general focus on assessment of learning instead of assessment for learning. To make this truly formative, the use of on-going continuous assessment must become the norm and can be done on a pilot basis in order to determine its feasibility. For the time being, the current practices tend to prevent teachers from putting more Formative Assessment into practice that focus on Assessment for learning. It is clear and obvious that teachers cannot implement these changes on their own. Instead, the development of assessment systems for learning require the will and determination of policy makers to develop, pilot, review and implement changes in current assessment practices. These changes require time and commitment from policy makers, educational experts and teachers to achieve the overall goal - to improve assessments in order to improve learning. For the smooth running of the pilot project, orientation and training of both teachers and education administrators on how to implement and monitor continuous assessment need to be followed. At the school level, the head teacher plays a critical role of sensitising both the pupils and parents before implementation of formative assessment in the curriculum.
In so far assessment is concerned, the proposed curriculum innovation will require the policy makers of the Ministry of Education, the Mauritius Institute of Education and other stakeholders (parents, students) to carry out intensive training sessions in all zones with educators, college managers, pedagogical inspectorate so that good practices that does justice to the philosophy of equity and fairness is fostered while implementing continuous assessment in colleges. Once this phase is completed, teachers will have to follow training courses on continuous assessment for various disciplines and subject areas.
Critical Success Factors for Implementation of Formative Assessment:
Consequently, special attention needs to be given to improve teacher training for:
providing short-term intensive workshop regarding continuous assessment for teachers, managers, mentors and inspectors.
enhancing teachers' use of language and communication skills.
enhancing new strategies and teachers' commitment to the activity-based and discovery methods of learning to make learning fun and enjoyable.
promoting the development of ICT skills so that teachers can use multimedia as a pedagogical tool.
helping teachers recognize and value diverse abilities and devise such activities which promote the holistic development of each child in classroom.
Related to the above point on changing mindsets of stakeholders, a third recommendation aims at the implementation both formative and summative assessments. From the point of view of (Brady & Kennedy, 2005), in practice, both formative and summative assessments may serve meaningful purposes for education. As discussed earlier, if these assessments are purposefully incorporated, they can both enforce meaningful teaching and learning.
The curriculum document recommended that assessment be conducted on a continuous basis
throughout the school year and assessment task should include "problem solving, mathematical thinking, ICT skills and creative work" (Reform Doc, 2006, p.24).
Through the introduction of the new assessment framework for the 21st Century in 2006, student progress assessment was spelt out in detail. Assessment for secondary students from year one to year two will be evaluated by teachers using assessment tools prepared at school using both formative and summative assessment will be used. As for the year three secondary students, the National assessment that will provide a National Certificate of Achievement for all pupils will be conducted. However, we recommend that the new assessment system for students from year one to year six is supposed to be made up of 40% continuous formative school-based assessments and 60% school-based or external examination in a first instance and 60% to 40% at a later stage. The document also states the following:
"The National Certificate of Achievement will state what the pupils can do rather than just attribute grades. It can also be used by prospective employers. It is proposed to start with Mathematics, Languages, ICT and practical science", (Reform Doc, 2006, p.24).
Since assessment for learning embodies many of the principles of formative assessment, it is hoped that through the use of the teacher-based, classroom-based informal assessment, the Continuous Assessment will actively contribute creating conditions for enhancing the quality of teaching and learning as an inherent component of the daily round of classroom life (Hargreaves, 2001).
There is also a proposed change for the end of primary school examination, the (Certificate of Primary Education). The examination will not be worth 100% as it is actually. The curriculum document recommended: "a medium term formula is being proposed which is broadbased and has the advantage of not only unburdening the examinations but of also taking into consideration those subjects (The Arts, Health & Physical Education etc..) which have until now been ignored. These aptitudes are as important in life and on the job market as any of the other subjects. This will constitute a breakthrough effectively empowering the nation's children. The CPE examinations will no longer be based exclusively on a one-off end-of-year written exams, but also on the basis of formative assessment" (Reform Doc, 2006, p.23).
The Mauritian school calendar has three terms in a year. The continuous assessment term mark is derived from two classroom-based assessments: one mark for the first month and the second mark for the second month in the term and one mark at the end of the term from the external test. Each mark accumulated from the assessments in the first month and the second month forms one third of the term mark, so the total weight of the two classroom-based assessments will be two thirds. The external test will have a weight of one third. The heart of the correct continuous assessment implementation entails that teachers give several assessments tasks or activities at different times whose marks accumulate to 30% at the end of the month. The staggered assessments could be based on the weeks' portion of work or topics. We, hence, conclude that when assessment is built into the instructional process, the confusion and frustration that test takers often face is greatly reduced.
Judging the positive results of formative assessment in most educational systems throughout the world, one cannot hesitate to try and introduce continuous primary as well as secondary level. As recommended by the Minister of Education for the inclusion of formative assessment mark for both certification and selection purposes at primary level, similar measures could be established in order to implement more formative assessment for the Cambridge School Certificate examination in Mauritius. It is believed that formative assessment can be a great success if it is implemented in phases, starting with the primary and lower secondary students in the first instance.
What are the major challenges to the implementation of Formative Assessment?
Despite these positive results, there are other limiting factors or challenges, which impinge upon its complete success and restrict its large-scale implementation.
Taking into account the case of Mauritius where Assessment for Learning has never been a reality in the Mauritian educational system, various challenges may be encountered in implementing the formative school-based assessment. Until recently, most assessment in Mauritius are of the written summative
kind or national-level examination (one at the end of pupils primary year, one at the end of the lower secondary level) and the Cambridge School Certificate O-level and A-level examination. Generally, challenges will come from stakeholders such as the teachers, students, parents, head teachers and administrators. Many stake holders might not be convinced that the newly formative assessment strategies are of the same standard as the summative assessment they were used to. On one hand teachers are not sure how to assess their students formatively, and on the other, students are not used to being assessed that way and some are not in favour of the changes. Furthermore, there are more challenges associated to the implementation of continuous assessment pilot programme:
At the same time, teachers might complained about very heavy workload as they will be required to mark and keep records of the progress of all learners. As to the changes in instructional strategies, the focus of the implementation process has been based on making teachers understand the difference between continuous assessment and continuous testing to create a constructivist class. Although, it was also observed that the intensive training and guidelines, whereby, encouraging teachers to practise continuous assessment, a good number of teachers failed to understand the need to administer assessments on an on-going basis such as weekly, fortnightly or after completing a topic.
Pupils' attendance might be irregular. This is another obstacle to the smooth management of pupil performance on Continuous Assessment records. Due to the fear of very challenging classwork some pupils might stay away from schools. This might in fact be noticed mainly in the rural areas. Some absenteeism eventually leads to pupils dropping out of schools completely.
Perceived tensions between formative assessments and highly visible summative tests to hold schools accountable for student achievement (teachers often teach to these summative tests and examinations).
Even though continuous assessment should be well incorporated with the teaching and learning processes, a good number of the teachers still felt that the continuous assessment is really time consuming for teachers. As a result, teachers got concerned that the time spent on remediation and enrichment was excessive and many teachers did not believe that they would finish the syllabus with continuous assessment. .
The Way Forward in Assessment: Aligning both summative and formative assessment approaches:
Both summative and formative approaches to assessment are important. Summative assessments are an efficient way to identify students' skills at key transition points, such as entry into the world of work or for further education. Most of the developing countries have not attempted to replace the external examinations with continuous assessment. The intention of most of the countries is to have the continuous assessment forming a component of students' final results, together with the external examination results. In this way the high stakes external examinations will ensure that the formative assessment aspect of continuous assessment are enhanced. This will consequently improve the teaching and learning processes in the classrooms. Observations from the current educational reform in the primary and secondary school contexts have informed us about the change in assessment practices. Increased application of formative assessment was evidenced. The effect of tests and examinations in directing teaching and learning has been weakened. Instead of the scoring, ranking, and grading that serve mainly summative assessment purposes, there is increasing demand on drawing a clear picture of students' learning progress among teachers, parents, and students (EC, 2000).
As Black & Wiliam (2005) said,
there is no 'royal road' to an assessment system that effectively serves both formative and summative functions that each country could follow, but it seems likely that the idiosyncratic road that will need to be taken in each country will also be very hard going. (p. 260)
Our educational reform is still on-going, the road ahead is long. Assessments, no matter they are "formative" or "summative", have their unique roles in the teaching and learning process. We see the effective assessment mode an integration of the two. Assessment will only be effective when "learning" is put in the integral part of the process. We argue for the significance of seeing assessment a means to improve teaching and learning and assessment should be designed to promote learning among students.
In terms of conclusion, there is a convinction that assessment is essentially an art, not a science. The potential of formative assessment to shape, to direct and stimulate the educational progress of young people is fundamental to my beliefs about assessment. It has clearly been shown that, teachers find the transition from the traditional objectives-based assessment to the outcomes-based assessment really difficult. Research, however, reveal that continuous assessment has an important role to play in the development of successful learning contexts. Educational reform is taking place in Mauritius. There are many challenges when introducing a new curriculum while emphasizing on innovative assessment evaluation. It is envisaged that assessment for learning ensures that teachers develop their understanding between learning and assessment as well as techniques in achieving continuous assessment in classrooms. One important principle of assessment for learning is to support and inform the teaching process by identifying the pupils' areas of weaknesses and strengths so that appropriate remedial interventions could be effected.
On the other hand, the introduction of formative assessment to any education system is a positive development, yet, there are still issues and problems facing teachers, students and policy makers.
In order that changes in assessment are implemented steadfastly, the close collaboration of all parties: the Ministry of Education (policy makers), teachers, head-teachers, administrators, students, parents and the community on the whole need to work together to make formative assessment a reality in the education system. To achieve promising objectives with continuous assessment in the education system, incremental teacher development training sessions will undoubtedly help teachers to improve to teach confidently and assess accordingly.