5 principles of assessing computing and ICT

5/7/2014 12:00:00 AM
There are lots of assessment grids and approaches being developed for the new Computing curriculum, which is wonderful. But how do you know which one is right for you? In this article I provide a few principles of assessment which I hope will provide some food for thought. These come partly from  a course I’ve been teaching on the subject.

These are general  principles which I have applied to the context of computing and ICT.

Know why you are assessing

There are many possible purposes of assessing, but the three with which you are most likely to be concerned are:

Diagnostic

What do your pupils already know or understand about, say, programming in Scratch? You can’t just ask them (see the “How” point below). What are their misconceptions, if any?

Formative

Often known these days as “assessment for learning”, formative assessment is used to check pupils’ understanding of what you are currently teaching them, or enabling them to learn. If you subscribe to Digital Education, our free newsletter, you will be able to download a pdf document entitled “31 Assessment for Learning Techniques”. This looks at, erm, 31 assessment for learning techniques that can readily be applied to computing or ICT.

Summative

This is finding out whether pupils have learnt what it was intended for them to learn by the end of a block of time like a term or a year.

So far so ordinary, but the challenge arises from the fact that it is not the assessment method that determines  whether it is diagnostic, formative or summative. For example, a test may be summative, but it could be formative if used in a different context for a different purpose. And it’s also worth bearing in mind that setting a test every week, say, to see what the pupils have learnt in the past week doesn’t make it formative assessment: it just makes it a lot of summative assessments.

Know what you are assessing

This is key. Let’s suppose you want to assess whether your pupils understand what a conditional statement is. Do you set them a task that involves writing a snippet of code in a real programming language, or will you be happy with pseudocode?  The reason this is important is that if I write a statement like:

If button is pressed, show message “OK”, otherwise show message “Please press button”

then that shows I understand what a conditional statement is. However, if you ask me to write it in proper code, and I can’t, you will need to do some further probing, ie some diagnostic assessment. Why? because my inability may stem from either of two reasons:

One, I may simply have forgotten the syntax to use.

Two, I may not understand the programming language sufficiently to be able to make an educated guess.

When I used to do a lot of programming in Visual Basic and Visual Basic for Applications, half the time I couldn’t remember the syntax, but I was usually able to work it out because I understood how the programming language was structured.

Once you have determined why I cannot write the conditional statement in code you, as the teacher, will be able to take appropriate steps to deal with the matter.

Know how you will assess

The assessment grids I referred to earlier are very helpful – up to a point. The trouble is, a statement like “Pupil understands conditional statements” tells you nothing about how you will know whether or not he or she does. Until scientists discover a way of checking people’s understanding and knowledge directly by looking at their brains, we will have to make do with inferring such things from their behaviour. In other words, what would you expect someone who understands conditional statements to do to demonstrate that?

I’m sorry if this is obvious, but it does mean that even if you download an assessment grid and decide to use it as it is, you will still have to do some work to decide what evidence you will look for.

But this, and the preceding point, raises another issue….

How will you know you’re assessing what you think you’re assessing?

This is known as the ‘validity’' problem’. If we go back to the ‘what’ point earlier, you may think you’re assessing my understanding of conditional statements by asking me to write one in Python, but you may actually be testing my memory instead. In a spreadsheet-based question, you may be testing my numeracy skills rather than my ICT understanding. In other kinds of task you may be inadvertently assessing my language skills. Examination boards spend a fortune, and employ an army of statisticians, to avoid the validation problem, so don’t think that you will do so completely! But it is something to be aware of in order to avoid making a simple but avoidable mistake. For example, the numeracy issue can be avoided if you give pupils the mathematical formula for doing the calculation, so that in the spreadsheet they just have to focus on how and where to use it.

Assessment should be reliable

I mention this for the sake of completeness. An assessment procedure is said to be reliable if it produces the same sort of results with different groups of similar pupils or, more simply, produces consistent results. This is another major issue that examination boards and others throw loads of money and brain power at. Given that your class is not only different from the one next door, but even different from itself when it’s windy outside, you’re not going to solve this one either.

Nevertheless, I think it’s worth knowing about so that you can avoid some pitfalls. Reliability is going to be very difficult to achieve if, for example, you give each teacher in your team (if you have one) a set of criteria by which to assign different grades or levels to work, and then leave them to it. Even setting out something as seemingly black and white as a rubric cannot be guaranteed to produce reliable results, because teachers interpret the criteria differently from each other – and even differently from themselves at different times. You would need to ensure there are plenty of opportunities for training, moderation, and seeing examples of pupils’ work at various levels or grades.

So, a lot to think about!

Don’t forget to subscribe to Digital Education and obtain your copy of 31 Assessment for Learning Techniques.

cross-posted on www.ictineducation.org

Terry Freedman is an independent educational ICT consultant with over 35 years of experience in education. He publishes the ICT in Education website and the newsletter “Digital Education."

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