Opinion: Hong Kong's Education Bureau made right move in suspending school-based assessment

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 6:06am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 April, 2015, 6:06am

The Education Bureau has recently revamped its policy on school-based assessment (SBA) for senior secondary subjects, scrapping the original plan of introducing it to more examinable subjects by phases, but retaining it for those that have already implemented it and fine-tuning existing practices.

Some welcome the move, while others raise objections, arguing that if SBA is indeed good for learning by helping both teachers and students review academic progress and is widely practised elsewhere in the world, there is no reason why it should not be adopted across the board.

Personally, I applaud the bureau's decision for several reasons. First, the tremendous workload stemming from SBA has in recent years taken much of teachers' time away from teaching and learning; they have to spend more time on assessment, marks submission, record-keeping and other logistical issues, resulting in less time providing meaningful one-on-one feedback to students, which is far more important than the act of assessment in promoting learning. That can easily lead to teaching for assessment. It is therefore appropriate to limit SBA's scope, sharpen its practice and let schools have a breather.

Most SBAs take the form of project work, which is a good way to help students develop study skills, analytical thinking and even social skills. But if every subject needs to carry out an SBA, one can imagine how it could have a negative impact on students. They would be kept under constant pressure throughout the school year because they are so exam-oriented and mark-conscious.

That would reduce the psychological room for real learning, leading to meaningless cut-and-paste work for project reports just to meet assessment requirements, and weariness.

It is what American systems scientist Peter Senge calls "the tragedy of the commons" - when every subject is vying for students' time and energy, seemingly for a good cause, it would ultimately destroy genuine learning as the total burden would just overwhelm them.

SBA is a new educational attempt in Hong Kong grounded in good theory. Rather than resorting to summative assessment, which used to be done in public exams, students are continuously assessed by teachers, who can cover valuable aspects or skills which public exams cannot easily assess, such as creativity. It is rightly assumed that such formative assessment as SBA is a helpful supplement to summative assessment and should be incorporated into normal teaching.

While I support such views, I would like to revisit briefly three concepts advanced by curriculum academics concerning the subject: assessment as learning, assessment for learning and assessment of learning. All three demand better understanding and application from frontline teachers. The last one is known best to teachers and parents, especially summative assessment of learning in the form of public exams, which have assumed the function of being a route for upward mobility in society and are viewed as supreme. But SBA is a new practice in this area.

The workload stemming from school-based assessment has taken much of teachers’ time away from teaching

More needs to be done to ensure its validity, comparability, authenticity and effectiveness. Assessment for learning, which has become a catchphrase in recent years, is the most significant of the three. If firmly practised, it can help teachers understand students' learning progress better, provide appropriate feedback to move them forward, and devise proper teaching and learning strategies to reach all in the class.

Suspending or scrapping full implementation of SBA would give us time for schools and teachers to acquire better assessment literacy. Assessment should be viewed as an important part of effective learning, and by extension, effective teaching.

Robin Cheung is a retired school principal