Striving for a personal best – who judges?

In this post I’m going to look at some of the issues surrounding a form of assessment you’re probably familiar with, but not with the terminology that goes with it: ipsative assessment. So what is ipsative assessment? It’s a means of assessment that measures the student’s progress, not by comparing to some external (and often arbitrary) standard, but by comparing the student’s achievement now to their achievement in the past. It asks the questions: Did I improve? By how much? It avoids the questions: What mark did I get? Did Fred do better than me?

This shift from external validation to internal comparison is an important one, and has a number of implications. Firstly, when done well it moves the focus towards personal growth and development. This, to me, is what education should be about. Arguably it’s the only measure that really matters long term, although the secondary effects of gaining qualifications and meaningful employment are also important. Education in this sense vastly exceeds the education-as-job-training model, developing citizenship as well as knowledge. My model of education always reminds me of a line from the film Dances with Wolves, when Kicking Bear (Grahame Greene) is talking to John Dunbar (Kevin Costner): “I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life there is one that matters most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail and it is good to see.” This idea is not new and goes back to Ancient Greece, where the responsibilities of citizenship were deeply connected to everyday life.

coaching word cloud

Coaching word cloud

Ipsative assessment in widespread in sports, and is often practised in conjunction with a coach – it’s the process behind the concept of a ‘personal best’, where achieving a personal best is a cause for celebration regardless of the result compared to others. I have my own boat (a GP14) and sail at a local club. It’s not a competitive boat. That’s not an excuse – the boat was built in 1973 and still has the same sails (which were old then) as when I bought the boat around 2000, so I’m not going to be winning any club races, even if I were a better sailor 🙂 . But it doesn’t matter: what matters is did I have a good race? How well did I spot the wind shifts? How well did I round the marks? In short, how am I sailing in this race compared to my own skills? Which, of course, is the only thing I can actually control. In this way, ipsative assessment is ‘performance in practice’, and as such is a prime example of authentic assessment.

The school system here in the UK uses a measure called ‘value-added’, which looks at the change in scores between various stages of schooling, with examination or test scores being the primary accountability measure. The downside is that if this measure is used to judge schools rather than record their performance then there will be pressure to game the system, which means that value-added isn’t measuring what it’s supposed to. In addition, I recall reading a blog recently where a teacher was criticising value-added because it assumed that the class that were tested in year 6 contained the same children that were tested in year 1. Their particular school had a high turnover of children because of local circumstances so the assumption didn’t hold. How on earth can you measure progress without tying the data to an individual? Surely without that link value-added has no value at all?

What I like about ipsative assessment is that the attention is focused on what has been achieved rather than what has not. It also gives us an additional chance to engage learners with taking responsibility for their own learning and that’s crucial for ipsative assessment to be effective, although achieving it can be problematic. When my daughter was taking her degree each assignment had a self-assessment sheet that was a copy of the one used by the tutors. The students were supposed to judge their own performance and then compare it to the tutor’s sheet when the work was returned. My daughter, despite many conversations about why self-evaluation was useful and what the educational purpose was, would simply tick the middle box all the way down. In effect, she deferred to an external authority to judge her work.

Conceptually, there is also a link to assessment for learning (A4L). While A4L allows the teacher to gauge student knowledge it can also be seen as ipsative assessment for the teacher that then feeds into their reflective practice.

A key question is how can we formalise ipsative assessment without losing the ethos behind it? We need structures and procedures to mediate and support the process, but the last thing education needs (especially schools-based education in the UK) is another accountability stick with which to beat the teachers. Firstly, if the process is simply a tick-box exercise then it’s not being allocated the importance it needs, and neither student nor teacher will take it seriously. Secondly, it’s vital that the process is student-owned. The student must be taking part in an active way with evaluating and processing their ipsative feedback for them to get the gains it offers. As Hughes has pointed out, the student needs to be the main participant, not the teacher.

In a previous post I described Jeremy Levesley’s approach to assessment, and this could fit quite nicely with ipsative assessment. Suppose we use Prof. Levesley’s approach so that we’re getting to a mark or grade quickly and then use the freed time to put more effort into the ipsative process? We get a mark to meet our accreditation needs (and those students who will still fixate on the mark above all else), and we get to develop learner independence and the self-assessment capabilities of our students. It seems like a win-win, but would a hybrid approach work, or are we just contaminating the ipsative process? I believe it could be done if the academic systems we choose to adopt within our course reinforces the practices we wish to see in our students.

The reason I think ipsative assessment isn’t more prominent in education at the moment is the relentless focus on education (and students) as a product, rather than education as a process, as Cory Doctorow recently observed in his wide-ranging video on openness, privacy and trust in education. And that’s the wrong focus. Why train students to perform in systems that are so unrepresentative of the world beyond the campus when we could teach them to judge themselves and extend beyond their personal best?