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Assessment in an holistic education context

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Stuart MacAlpine
Former Director of Teaching and Learning, UWCSEA East

Stuart MacAlpine was the Director of Teaching and Learning on the East Campus from August 2013 to December 2019. He joined the College as Head of English at Dover Campus before moving to East Campus.

Stuart has a life long interest in progressive education and especially the United World College movement and prior to moving to Singapore, worked in both boarding and academic roles at Lord Wandsworth School, Sevenoaks School and Millfield School in the UK. He has an undergraduate degree from York, a post graduate qualification from Edinburgh University, and a Post Graduate Teaching qualification.

Stuart has eclectic interests: from Hardy fishing rods to the artist and poet Ian Hamilton Finlay; from technology to Byron. His wife Francesca is an infant teacher and they have three children. 


Assessment in an holistic education context

Tools such as ISA can never replace the holistic view of a student provided by teachers, parents, students and a multitude of opportunities to display learning

These are interesting times to live in when it comes to education. The general public is more concerned with the role of education, as the world around us changes rapidly and the definition of what it means to be ‘well-educated’ expands to incorporate far more than standardised test scores, exam results or even university degrees. We all want to live in a peaceful, sustainable world, where our children can flourish, and humanity can make good, fair choices about what is important—and we are wondering how education can help our children shape that better world.

Educational researcher and writer Professor Dylan Wiliam points out in his recently published, Leadership for Teacher Learning, that the nature of the jobs our children are going into is rapidly changing as routine jobs become automated: America has lost more manufacturing jobs to automation since 2000 than were lost in agriculture over the entire last century (Wiliam, Leadership for Teacher Learning 2016). Even complicated routine jobs are vanishing—an example Wiliam gives is that computers are now more effective at diagnosing prostate cancer from biopsies than board certified urologists.

Given this landscape, where does the general public look to know how things are going in education? In some cases, they look to standardised assessments and the International Schools Assessment (ISA), the assessment all UWCSEA Grade 3 to 10 students recently sat, is just such a score. It is tightly aligned to the United Nations Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide and hits the headlines every few years with new winners and losers in the international limelight of Mathematics and Literacy scores.

The ISA offers us the chance to compare our students’ Mathematics and Literacy scores against a large cohort of international school students’ scores and reflect on what this might mean for us. Of all the tests available, it offered the College the most suitable information: it is based on a cohort of international school students rather than a specific national system; we can compare the scores directly with PISA scores from the huge range of countries sampled by the UN; it tests composition of writing which few tests do; and it has a robust parental report.

Obviously there are limitations to what it can tell us. As with any assessment, the ISA merely gives a snapshot of a child’s knowledge, skills and understanding at one particular moment in time and the results are best read as “plus or minus 10 percent.” For an individual student, the ISA results offer one data point for triangulation alongside other key indicators such as the child’s teacher’s observations of his/her learning and the teacher’s professional judgement. These multiple data points help us to build a well-rounded and informed view of each child’s learning progress.

ISA and PISA scores seem to offer simple answers to a complex problem. But as the saying goes “for every complex problem, there is a simple answer; and it is wrong.” The kind of learning that ISA measures is best described as ‘necessary, not sufficient’ for the kind of world your children deserve. The recent Turning the Tide report by the Harvard Graduate School of Education which Chris Edwards wrote about in Term 2 edition of Dunia, reinforced how universities are seeing learning more holistically and in the light of values, skills and qualities like those in the UWCSEA profile. In a more automated world it is ethical engagement with complexity that will be required: the attributes our holistic learning programme seeks to build in students. These are the qualities that are not only necessary but also sufficient.

I write in a year in which Google’s DeepMind computer defeated world champion Go player Lee Se-dol, a feat that cognitive scientists said would be impossible because Go relies on such intuition and complexity that it cannot be solved algorithmically: they were wrong. The ISA helps us understand only one very small but important part of the learning puzzle and it can never replace the holistic view of a student that only teachers, parents, students and a multitude of opportunities to display learning can provide. The world is a complex place, and those who are ready to flourish will need more than ever the skills and qualities of our UWCSEA profile, to create not just an efficient future world, but a fair and humane one.

Students in Grades 3-10 sat for an International Schools Assessment (ISA) in February of this year. Your child’s individual report from these tests is available online (login required); a guide to accessing the reports is here. A video of the presentation to parents on the ISA presented in April 2016 on East Campus is available here.
14 Jun 2016
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