Future Focused Assessment - imagine if schools did no high stakes assessment...

Today I was lucky enough to attend the Ministry of Education Cross Sector Forum where they were launching the Digital Technologies curriculum draft (check it out here and provide your feedback). 

It was an excellent event. The Lynfield College Robotics group kicked off the event, charming the room with their articulate argument for technology across and within the curriculum. Then our new Minister of Education, the Honourable Nikki Kaye, provided an excellent insight into her vision for education, I got the sense that the Minister is well positioned to prepare the sector for the exponential change that is closer than we think. Her vision for digital transformation was bold (the need for which was excellently articulated by Frances Valintine's keynote) and her message was clear - we need to act and we need act now! It was also clear that the Minister understands that there are very real issues with teacher wellbeing and workload and intends to address this head on as well. Good move. 

This got me thinking, we need to to use this technology more effectively, we need to tackle the very real issue of workload and wellbeing, we want to develop this thing called 'learner agency' and want to personalise pathways and we really want NZ to lead the way. 

Well I have a suggestion, I have a dream! Why the heck don't we just remove high stakes assessment from the clutches of these overworked teachers? Why don't we remove them from schools altogether? Why don't we make schools about exploring, experiencing, teaching and learning? There is a simple way we could do this. Why don't we support NZQA to develop a portal where by students submit their work so as to evidence their mastery of a specific skills when and if they are ready? Students could work strategically to build up suite of micro-credentials to make up the certification that equips them to enter their next stage of their education or pathway. Teachers teach, learners learn, teachers verify student work, NZQA facilitate opportunities for learners to evidence their learning and assess their skills. 

Imagine the flow on effects, teachers would be freed up to do all the creative stuff that can get squeezed out of the school day, schools could genuinely focus on teaching and learning, exerting energy on assessment for learning rather than assessment of learning. Schools would still prepare these young people for assessment, they would also have to prepare these young people to manage themselves. In fact the latter would be the key to a young person's success. If students were encouraged to see Achievement Standards as micro-credentials and curate these strategically to piece together a certificate of THEIR choice, what might that do to how we deliver learning? Might we be less inclined to deliver learning in unnaturally discrete "subjects" all year long? I hope so. 

On the flip side it would also make us have to evaluate the whole value proposition of school, particularly senior secondary. For some students school might be rendered redundant, why go to school when you can prep through Kahn Academy and then be assessed by NZQA? Bloody good question. What do we need to do differently to ensure the whole notion of attending this thing called school remains relevant and valued by young people if they no longer necessarily needed us to gain a NCEA Level Two or Three certificate? What an awesome question to tackle. What an opportunity to rethink what we do and why we do it! Would be interested to hear your thoughts. 


  1. There is some great complex thinking here and there has been a lot of awesome challenges laid down by yourself and Richard Wells RE: assessment over the last few days which have my head spinning. I think it is great that you have actually given an alternative as I think it is too easy for some change makers to pose questions but never answers.

    While supporting teachers to rethink teaching and learning over the last few years the number one barrier has been the requirements of NCEA so the developments around NZQA Future State programme have been very much welcomed at our school. Our staff have spent many hours debating the validity of high stakes exams and internals as, while we have a close to 100% pass rate at NCEA, we do have increased anxiety and stress amongst teachers and staff despite significant reduction in credit loads. I am looking for evidence around the validity of high stakes assessment as part of me feels it is high stakes that bring out the very best in people. The feeling of accomplishment on a students face when they complete their 3x panel art folio is always a pleasure to witness. A surgeon friend tells me she relishes her two day, 7 hour medical exams. I feel that reducing assessment to just micro credentials might miss something innate to humans which is rising to and overcoming a seemingly impossible task (insert cheesy Americas cup analogy here).

    If we would like to personalise learning then I believe that what you are proposing and what NZQA are proposing with their Future State should exist simultaneously and that students can select a mode of assessment which best suits them. Likewise I believe that NZQA should not offer just digital exams by 2020 but also paper based if that is what a student prefers. I am slightly paranoid that we (those that seek to shift education) will preach Personalisation in one breath and advocate and one sized fits all approach in another.

    The micro-credentials you propose absolutely do have a place in education now and sit well with such developments in the cooperate sector. However in terms of demonstrating in-depth discipline based thinking I really value high stakes exams such as the scholarship questions and the Visual Arts, Drama and Technology portfolios. An innovative teacher can 'hack' the NCEA system to deliver relevant 21st century learning and it is not so much the assessments that limit student choice and agency but the institutions interpretation of how these assessment should be delivered , timetable etc. I partially disagree that the current assessments do not allow Teachers to teach and learners to learn as by significantly re-designing my own curriculum area we have done just that using the current assessments. I know that micro skills are important but I do think that they could be viewed as being overly simplistic and would like to see more massive, high stake project based, portfolio based assessments where the opportunity to fail is so epic but through carefully scaffolded (and discreet) support students realise unbelievable success and when they look back at their journey they believe that they did it themselves.

    I do not view schools as a place just to pick up qualifiable skills like you propose, are we not also here to challenge them, make them feel uncertain, push them past their point of comfort and expose them to new ways of thinking? Our students HATE Khan Academy! They demand we make the videos for them so that they can hear our voices (cringe). To me that says that they will always prefer the human touch over AI (at least until 2020).

    Changing the assessments might be so shocking that it will shatter the mindsets of everyone involved so that they adopt relevant learning practices. However I feel that demonstrating how the current system can be hacked, within traditional schools ,while still allowing students to achieve at a high level might be a more urgent matter.

    1. Thanks for your comment Tim. Don't for a minute think I am saying Kahn is the future, more a warning that if we simply stick stuff online we won't be the appealing option if you can do the same at home. My excitement is actually to do with moving beyond qualifiable skills I completely agree that isn't the sole purpose of schools. I think the senior focus on delivering assessments is what can narrow our focus to little more than that. I agree we should most definitely be hacking the curriculum, I have certainly done so for many years, but why limit ourselves to that?

    2. The Khan reference was more an answer to the fact that students inherently want school to be a place of human connectedness. I feel that some subject assessments do currently assess much more than qualifiable skills and serve already serve as a driver for project based, real world learning and in doing so facilitate collaboration between teacher and student. I'm not sure this is the case across all assessments. I'd like to see that all writers and markers of NZQA being qualified to deal with pertinent and relevant assessments formats.

      I would like to see something like what you propose available for teachers to help us with up skilling. There should be 20-30 courses available for all teachers, free of charge to up skill in relevant practices.

  2. I recently questioned why so much of this awesome new curriculum strand was focussed around the Achievement standards - it seemed like the cart leading the horse :( So this post really tickled my fancy - lets get rid of high stakes assessment (which I do agree with) coupled with the release of a new curriculum strand that was based around the design of the AS. Sigh. It also seems that getting these assessments up and running (trialled in term 3, to be used in 2018, and the old AS phased out from 2019/20) has been an enormous workload for a very few teachers.
    That said, I'm helping design a module for our juniors and the learning progressions (even if they are draft) are fabulous to have so we can sure it up before the end of term deadline for new courses.

  3. Thanks for sharing your insights and ideas Clare and for setting up such a productive and essential dialogue between educators. We need to really think differently about how education can lead change and reflect the real world in which our students will live, work and socialise. In my working life the only time I have had to memorise facts and regurgitate is in my driving test ( a million years ago). The ways you suggest that students provide evidence of their learning is much closer to the real collaborative and analytical skills our students will need in their futures. Why are we even teaching them to sit an exam when so few of them will ever experience that type of 'test' again. In my world of professional learning and development I have been asking myself.. what will the driver-less car version of PLD look like in our education system? and I guess the same applies when we are thinking about the traditional school and classroom. I look forward to the ongoing korero around this topic both within and across and beyond the education community.


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