Students Should Drive Assessment, Not Schools.

Russell Cailey
5 min readSep 28, 2020
TGS in Botswana

As national and global schooling systems wrestle with the abrupt closure of the previous academic year, the problem of how to accurately grade student performance has become somewhat of a complex disaster. Frustratingly Departments of Education seem reluctant to answer some fundamental questions that emerged through this crisis, such as why adequate preparation was not made from the point of lockdown and school closures, for awarding students accurate and suitable grades? Why for decades has the examination systems, apart from some minor tweaks, remained in-tact up until this crises? Are GCSE’s, A-Levels, Advanced Placement, ACT or SAT examinations a fair representation of students ability? How do we promote passion and play within the system? In what ways does our current assessment model limit our creative abilities? What follows COVID, is it simply back to normal? Or do we seek an industry-wide evaluation of the measuring instruments that launch students towards the next steps of their academic or non-academic careers?

The move away from old industrial systems of assessment is made more urgent by the need to change the emphasis of education from something done to you, towards something you do for yourself. A change in our system of knowledge acquisition is now essential, and we are at a tipping point in the backdrop of COVID and lockdowns in which change is possible. Changing the domain of assessment can become a core component which can drive a dynamic change in syllabus design, teaching pedagogy and student schedules if approached correctly.

At Think Global School (TGS), we have collectively struggled with the design and implementation of a student-worthy process of assessment, and by no means has the journey concluded. When the Changemaker program launched in 2017 members of the TGS team headed off into the global education conference circuit and looked for feedback on our ideas for assessments, it is fair to say that audiences received much of the model with surprise, criticism and even hilarity. However, in light of the COVID impact upon our industry and the subdued success our model has achieved, in addition to the feedback from parents, students and (more recently) industry experts, we again emphasise the need for students to drive assessment, not schools.

These assessments offered at Think Global School are formulated by educators in three domains, student-designed rubrics, the table of excellence and self-awarded grades.

Student-Designed Rubrics

At Think Global School, students include a selection of nine families of Learning Targets within their teacher-led, personal projects and mastery projects (this being a final thesis project completed mainly in Grade 12). Students then establish a criterion following Bloom’s taxonomy of what novice, specialist, and mastery look like for each of the selected learning targets (usually between 6–8 targets per project).

Rather than doing projects, students learn how to deep dive into cross-curricular subject matter through the teacher-led modules and then are given more freedom as they move through the program. As students learn how to adapt to the Changemaker program, the learning targets that are predominantly achieved in the novice and specialist zones, and students slowly learn to bridge the gap between specialist and mastery by taking more opportunities to create, coach and mentor on their passions and the PBL-process itself. Rubric design starts with baby-steps in the teacher-led modules and personal projects, with students focusing on maybe singular targets to push to or practice at mastery, pushing a broader scope of mastery (maybe a scope of 4/5 targets) by the time they reach their final mastery (or passion) project.

Table of Excellence

Once learning targets have been selected, and an evaluative process has been established for predominately novice and specialist, students complete a ‘Table of Excellence’. The purpose of the table is to add a more personalised approach towards the assessment of a project. Students here can focus away from the more academic-based learning targets and focus on more transferable skills (sometimes unhelpfully called ‘soft skills’) such as general communication, presentation skills, or accepting and giving feedback. The table of excellence is also a chance to embed 21st Century Skills within the student’s projects and also push themselves to reflect on the positive community impact of their designs or/and prototypes.

The Self (student)-Awarded Grade

Probably the most controversial aspect of the TGS approach to assessment is the ‘self-directed grade’, and this indeed receives the most surprise from our external guests, conference attendees or critical friends. Moving away from the traditional model in which the teacher and school are the sole arbitrators of achievement and success, once the student completes their project they award themselves their Grade based on the work recorded and presented to staff in a process portfolio based against their self-designed rubric and Table of Excellence, in short, did they do what they aimed to do? This project grade is awarded in collaboration with their guiding educators in the form of a formal and structured exit interview. If the educator feels that the Grade and evidence provided does not sync, they can either ask for the interview to be repeated at a later date or can challenge the Grade through pointing out the discrepancies between the various student-designed entities (portfolio, rubric and Table of Excellence).

It is the TGS belief that having the stated internal assessment system is geared towards regular dynamic feedback led by student-directed and designed criterion is nothing to shy away from, a new approach to assessment can propel us collectively towards what Ito and Howe (2019) call learning over education. We can all collectively think back to the days when student assessment looked like a regular practice test, a mock exam followed by an external assessment, but is it with embarrassment or pride? Is this the best we can do? A system so archaic and brutally exposed by COVID and current events that we are now collectively fumbling in the dark as an industry to award grades based on scrambled data thrown together at the last minute with no agreed or approved mechanism.

So what’s next? With much more progressive educational establishments trying to break away from the old model, there is a need to come together in some capacity to begin to share best practice and begin to formulate an assessment approaches that can be shared with colleagues and schools struggling to formulate a different path. The purpose of this article is to generate a collective debate on what could and should come next. Is the next step for student assessment, sticking as we are, more tinkering, or a true re-imagination?

Ito, J. (2019) Whiplash. London. Grand Central Publishing.

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Russell Cailey

Managing Director of THINK Learning Studio | Curiosity Anywhere, Learning Everywhere.