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Issue 2: The new assessment paves its way

By Vincent Li, LED Year 4 (2006-2007), Chloe Liu, LED Year 2 (2006-2007), Carrie Ng, LED Year 2 (2006-2007) & Iris Pong, LED Year 2 (2006-2007)

School-based Assessment (SBA) has been a hot topic among secondary English teachers and students in Hong Kong for the last year or so. When it was first introduced to teachers and students in Hong Kong, there was a lot of noise. Teachers and students were worried about having SBA as part of the assessment, especially the fairness of it. Students were not informed of this new way of assessment and teachers cast their concerns over the workload it would bring. Now after a few months of consultations, discussions, preparations in forms of seminars and workshops, and more importantly, actual implementation in the classrooms, the editorial board would like to present to you some updates of SBA, with some positive sides of it although other deep-rooted problems remain unsolved. The editorial board has collected some views from local secondary students who are currently undergoing trainings on the new syllabus for the Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examination (HKCEE) and interviewed two professors in the Faculty of Education at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

Professor David Coniam is a professor in the Faculty of Education who has been involved in the SBA committee for the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). Dr. Winnie Lee also has experience in language testing and assessment. Both of them were tutors for the SBA training sessions held at CUHK from January to April in 2006.  We have also interviewed Ms Ruby Poon, an English language teacher in a secondary in Tin Shui Wai. She has been teaching the HKCEE syllabus for 6 years and it is the second year for her school to implement SBA. She would like to share with us her experiences in implementing SBA in her school.

Before presenting the views of the academics, the local English language teacher and the students, the background of SBA is given.

Background of SBA

(information summarised from the Reform Proposals for the Education System in Hong Kong available from http://www.e-c.edu.hk/eng/reform/annex/Edu-reform-eng.pdf)

SBA was first proposed in the Reform Proposals for the Education System in Hong Kong which was published in September 2000. According to the proposal, the modes, content and the assessment methods of public examinations should be reviewed (p.44). An approach called “core-competence” which is similar to criterion-referencing will be adopted. In this approach, basic skills and knowledge required of a Secondary 5 graduate will be indicated and students do not have to compare with the others.  Under the education reforms in which a new culture of learning and teaching is to be cultivated, schools can use different modes of broad-based assessments such as observation of students’ performance in classroom as well as participation in project work to help promote learning in a flexible manner. To minimise the amount of quantitative evaluation, more analytical assessments with specific comments, therefore, should be made so as to provide more useful feedback for learning and teaching. Summative assessments are necessary but should not be excessive. According to the proposal, excessive dictations, mechanical drilling, tests and examinations should be avoided to allow more time for students’ participation in useful learning activities.

The proposal also suggests that assessment should align with the objectives, process and experience of learning. The focus of assessment, hence, should be on students’ attitudes and abilities instead of the knowledge they memorised or the assignments they completed. One of the advantages of having a “core-competence” part includes the possibility of assessing students’ abilities which are not easily assessed through written tests. It gives considerations to students’ abilities in various domains and their overall learning process. Another advantage is the promotion of an all-round development which gives a fuller picture of students’ performance and a comprehensive picture of students’ learning needs, as well as reinforces the positive effects of public examinations. Lastly, it helps to address the drawback of judging students on their performance in one single examination.

Rationales of SBA

The rationales laid down by the Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) for implementing SBA are as follows:

• to continuously assess students in a stress-free environment
• to reflect the standard and ability of students
• to facilitate teaching and learning
• to encourage students’ leisure reading and listening
• to promote learners’ autonomy and independent learning
• to promote “learning how to learn” by carrying out peer reviews and writing after a model in the assessment tasks and trainings
• to inform prospective employers and universities the level of students

Prof. Coniam and Dr. Lee both agreed with the rationales of having SBA. Dr. Lee thought that SBA is very good theoretically and it is important and necessary to have both formative and summative assessment. She also added that one of the aims of having SBA is to make Hong Kong’s examination system in line with the international model so that ‘assessment for learning’ is achieved and assessment becomes part of the curriculum.  Ms Poon also agreed with the rationales of SBA and suggested that the communicative and interactive elements in the assessment tasks will help the oral production of students.

The Progress of SBA

Schools are now given the choice to submit the SBA grades in 2007 as initially planned, or to do so in 2008 or 2009.

Both Prof. Coniam and Ms Poon welcomed the decision. Ms Poon commented the decision as “a good compromise”. Prof. Coniam further remarked that “2009 is more realistic.” He expressed that from his observations when he had the SBA training sessions last January to April with the school teachers, they were not ready for SBA and had no idea of what to do. He told us that he had expected chaos. However now, given much time to try it out, teachers are telling him that they are doing something for SBA and progressing. The situation now is much better than he had thought.

SBA as an Assessment

• Validity

Dr. Lee believed that SBA helps enhance the validity and reliability of the HKCEE theoretically and its success also depends on other factors such as the kind of assessment tasks teachers are going to use to assess students’ performance. She highlighted the importance of differentiating summative assessment from formative assessment. Prof. Coniam commented that the introduction of SBA has improved the validity of the HKCEE. As the communicative value is being put together with the examination carefully, and the idea of task-based learning is used in the SBA, it enhances the validity of the examination, he said.

• Reliability

Reliability is one of the main concerns over the adoption of criterion-referencing in SBA. As Ms Poon pointed out, “we are doubtful about it.” After attending the SBA training sessions, her impressions were that there was a lot of flexibility in setting the questions as well as grading students’ performance. “I think the flexibility actually lowers the reliability of the test a lot,” she commented.

Nevertheless, the professors said that according to the HKEAA, there will be “statistical moderations” to the final grades within class, within school, then among schools. Dr. Lee and Prof. Coniam explained that there will also be a correlation between the ‘Oral score’ and the ‘SBA score’, but they were not sure how exactly that will be carried out.

• Fairness

The new way of assessing students under SBA allows the use of different tasks for students of different proficiency levels and interests. Ms Poon doubtfully said that it may be fair to the less able students, but the very able students, for example, students from elite schools, may not think the same as students from low banding schools.

Some students thought that SBA is not fair. As only the four best marks will count towards the final grade, the more the number of assessments, the greater chance students would get higher grades.  Dr. Lee understood the grievances of teachers and students that SBA may not be a fair assessment especially to the high ability students because the tasks given are not the same, and students are not being assessed on the same date, etc. However, she reminded us again to distinguish formative assessment from summative assessment and their different purposes when considering ‘fairness’.

According to Prof. Coniam, the SBA architects stated that formative assessment aims to give students tasks of their level, so that they can perform at their optimum and achieve their best. It shows a new way of viewing ‘fairness’ – a fit of students’ level which contrasts the traditional way of viewing ‘fairness’ as having the same test under the same condition for everybody. SBA is then considered fair.  When asked if 15% is the right weighting to the final score, Ms Poon was a bit conservative about it. She suggested that 15% is fine, but 10% would even be better, and actually the lower the better. Dr. Lee, in contrast, thought 15% is appropriate because 15% will not have a strong influence on the final grade. She further mentioned that even 20% is still fine, when she cited the case of Australia where SBA weighs more than 50%. However, she pointed out that if HKCEE is to be a summative assessment, then the weighting of SBA should not be as much as 50%.

Concerns over SBA

The workload of both students and teachers has increased. Students who will be taking the 2007 HKCEE complained that they could barely have time and energy for other subjects. Some English teachers have to give up their normal teaching time to prepare students for SBA. Prof. Coniam mentioned that during the SBA training sessions, some secondary school teachers had to have extra sessions with the students after school or on Saturday mornings in order to do SBA. He stressed that SBA is meant to be an integral part of the curriculum. It seems that teachers and students are still adjusting this change. While teachers and students are preparing for SBA as if it were a new or separate paper, Dr. Lee emphasised that it should not be treated as a separate subject or paper, but as an integral part of the regular General English programme. She suggested that instead of taking SBA as a completely new subject and an assessment that will increase their workload, teachers can treat SBA tasks as an alternative way to help prepare students for both the SBA and the public examination. For example, when preparing students for the Writing Paper, teachers have to teach them some skills for identifying and writing different genre types. Those skills can also be applied in SBA in which students have to write book and movie reviews.

Preparing students for the Writing Paper, teachers have to teach them some skills for identifying and writing different genre types. Those skills can also be applied in SBA in which students have to write book and movie reviews. In fact, after implementing SBA in her school for the second year, Ms Poon has now found that the skills she has been teaching students in preparation for SBA are also useful for the ‘Oral’ paper. She described the situation as “killing two birds with one stone”. Students also recognised the same benefit of SBA as they are now more confident in speaking.

Time for Action

Although SBA is still a new kind of assessment in Hong Kong, teachers and students are asked to move forward and especially to reprioritise the importance of the four language skills, and change their way of viewing some of the key ideas in SBA like ‘assessment’ and ‘fairness’. As Dr. Lee reminded us the distinction and the purposes of formative and summative assessments, and a balance between them is important and necessary.  Ms Poon gave us a practical example of a ‘big leap forward’. In the past, priority used to go to grammar and vocabulary building, then listening. “Oral skill is always the last skill we focus on,” she remarked. Although acknowledging the difficulties in implementation caused by the mindset of teachers, the late commencement of training in speaking skills and the many uncertainties lying ahead, she still found the introduction of SBA as an assessment worthwhile and expressed her confidence in implementing it. “It takes time for the effect to come out, but I can see that the students really start to benefit from the SBA practices, training and assessments. I can see that they are more confident in speaking!”

Prof. Coniam gave an analogy to call for action. If ‘ERIC’ (Everyone Reading In Class) is to be successful, just like implementing SBA in Hong Kong, everyone has to make an effort. “If you want to have your students reading extensively, the teacher cannot just sit there and mark the assignments when the kids are doing their reading,” he remarked. Thus, the success of SBA depends on teachers’ and students’ efforts and co-operation.

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