From the Head Master

Assessment

The School often tries to convince the boys that academic assessment is their friend. You can imagine that this is an uphill battle.

The boys’ understanding of academic assessment is shaped by all sorts of associations and perceptions. The idea of ‘failure’ can loom large in the imagination. The perception that they are involuntarily engaged in a competition with their peers adds undue pressure. The suggestion that their personal worth and potential rises and falls with their results is also unhelpful. Media commentary about performance in NAPLAN and Year 12 results, along with the declining national performance in the PISA tests, also creates a context where academic assessment is freighted with additional significance.

These negative associations can be compounded by well-meaning parents and extended families, who are motivated by love and a desire to ensure that their sons will be able to achieve certain life paths, but who can over-read the significance of each little step along the way.

In her regular columns in the Head Master’s Bulletin, the Academic Dean has consistently articulated a thoughtful, rigorous and wise framework by which the School understands academic assessment. I commend her column to parents.

The reality is that academic assessment is an inextricable element of the School experience of a boy, and it is integral to the learning process. The School does not resile for a second from affirming the importance of academic assessment. However, the question to which we need to continue to return is ‘What is the primary purpose of academic assessment?’

The primary purpose of academic assessment is to identify where a student is at in his learning at a particular point in time, so that growth and progress are visible and so that future learning can be designed.

The sentence above is densely packed with ideas that repay consideration and reflection.

Assessment does get used for other purposes as well, but these are secondary and ancillary purposes and they should not overshadow or obscure the main purpose.

The primary purpose of assessment is not to sort or rank students, although sometimes it does have this role. It is not to determine who receives prizes or citations, although it does get used for that also. It is not to train or accustom students for the high-stakes assessments that happen at the end of their schooling, although it may sometimes help in that way. The primary purpose is not to validate successful parenting, or to qualify individuals for particular careers, or to burnish a resume.

Understood in this way, academic assessment is the friend of students. It is good for them, helpful for them, and valuable for them as they continue to learn.

You may wonder why I have taken the time to labour this point. On one level, it is self-evident that a shared understanding of the purpose of assessment is helpful for students, parents and teachers. We will not be talking at cross-purposes or misunderstanding one another.

However, one of the main reasons I want to address this has arisen from some data that emerges from the various instruments that we use to monitor student wellbeing in the School. While our boys appear to be tracking well with reference to external benchmarks in most areas, they report a higher level of stress than their peers elsewhere. Anecdotally, and through cross-referencing other sources of data, it is clear that academic assessments are a significant cause of the stress that they experience.

It is in the interests of our boys wellbeing that we understand the primary purpose of academic assessment, and ensure that our words and actions reflect that purpose. Academic assessment, properly understood, is a friend.

Detur Gloria Soli Deo.

Tim Bowden | Head Master


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