Why Authentic Assessment Matters: Assessing Speaking and Listening
Does public speaking matter?
What do the Houses of Parliament, the Oxford Union, big business board rooms, assembly halls and court chambers have in common? They are the seats of power for people who lead our nation, the great…and the not-so-great and good. What other common factor is at work in such settings? Each respective setting requires expert speaking and listening skills. Indeed, power in society equates with the power of knowledge and to speak and to listen in such social settings. We must empower every student with the tools to speak in such settings if we seek real social mobility. Now, my argument is that when Gove suggests that we should move towards an ‘all eggs in one basket‘ summative exam, we should reject that proposition. We should instead look to a richer, much more varied assessment model that has speaking and listening rooted at its core.
“We value what we measure, rather than measuring what we value” is a common refrain in education. Michael Gove has recently declared that if we are to return to an education system of rigour we must have a fitting assessment model. Now, few professionals could argue with this ambition for rigour, but Gove has indicated that high standards will only be upheld by the narrowest of assessments – an ‘all eggs in one basket’ summative exam approach. Such a narrow model (although it does signal the positive jettisoning of endless resits and time-consuming controlled assessments) fails to prepare our students of today for a complex tomorrow. One shift we must make is to place challenging oral assessments at the heart of our curriculum model, across curriculum subjects, if we are to move towards a curriculum fit for the twenty first century. We need to show we value those key skills for success: speaking and listening skills. They should be rooted in our daily practice – not be seen as burdensome or extraneous high-stakes assessments.
I can remember with vivid immediacy my experience of speaking and listening presentations in my English lessons. Notably, I remember no such challenge outside of English, except a couple of Spanish orals, which were rather less than memorable. I loved many of my English lessons, as you would likely expect, but the prospect of presenting to my peers filled me with dread. At KS3 I gave a dire talk on earthworms; at KS4 I lowered the bar still further with a bleak explanation of cancer. Each time I had to present to the group my fear was nearly insurmountable, resulting in my feigning illness on more than one occasion. Now I am confident speaking to a hall of over one hundred fellow professionals. How has this transformation occurred? Repeated deliberate practice. Was it solely down to those assessments – of course not – but they made a difference. I was made to undertake that challenge, whereas if the assessment was not an external requirement I may not have had to complete such a task. If those assessments didn’t exist on a more formal basis would we have undertaken them given factors like student recalcitrance or merely absence? Ultimately, one lingering impact of those tentative presentations and group discussions is that am able to become successful at my job and so much more.
Oracy has always been the poor sibling to reading and writing and once more we are failing to exploit a realigned curriculum to raise the status of speaking and listening. Despite its lowly status, educationalists across the globe recognise its primacy in the very act of learning. Even a rudimentary understanding of child language acquisition will spell out that oracy is the very foundation for successful reading and writing. I know, for example, that my young daughter’s oral proficiency will correlate strongly with her future ability to read and write successfully. Indeed, reading itself is a form of listening – described here by E. D. Hirsch:
“Reading—even skimming—is indeed accompanied by “subvocalization.” Although some teachers use this term to refer to children whispering to themselves as they make the transition from reading out loud to silent reading, researchers use this term to refer to the internal voice we all hear while we read silently. We use an inner voice and an inner ear. Reading IS listening.”
To say that listening complements reading also highlights its crucial role in the writing process. ‘Subvocalization’ is also inherent in the writing process, so much so that we commonly use the phrase ‘the writer’s voice’ without a second thought. You are likely voicing this blog this very moment! Extended talk and oral rehearsal can aid the writing process as much as it can prepare for a speaking performance. Put simply, speaking and listening are integral to reading and writing. If we foreground the assessment of speaking and listening, we enrich reading and writing.
I teach English and we have three speaking and listening assessments at GCSE for English Language (none for English Literature) which accounts for 20% of the overall grade for English Language – not far off from an appropriate percentage for how I see speaking listening could being assessed in all subjects. Of course, Modern Foreign Languages has oral assessment at the heart of its curriculum, but in my opinion, there is a paucity of high quality oral assessments inter-connected across our curriculum (which would bolster the learning of foreign languages, a particular need for British students). To use an aural metaphor, we need each teacher in the school to be a player in a orchestra, each contributing to the music that is speaking and listening skills. We fail to exploit the many rich opportunities for rigorous assessment in the form of debate and individual presentations. We expect students to undertake university interviews, to give seminar presentations, to perform a ‘viva voce’ in further education – not even getting starting on the world of work; yet we only tinker at the margins with preparatory assessments that would further nudge teachers and schools to raise the standards of speaking and listening assessment. The opportunities are legion, but too often forsaken.
An approach to public speaking could be rigorous and systematic – a balancing point to end of course exams. We can record assessments with ease and relatively cheaply – it is already a requirement for parts of the iGCSE and the International Baccalaureate. This may create somewhat of a burden, but that does add greater rigour and consistency to the process – a price well worth paying. We can also balance internal and external assessment judgements too to add greater consistency. One interesting comparison between AQA GCSE English and the International Baccalaureate, for example, is that with the IB all written coursework is assessed externally and half of the speaking and listening is assessed externally too. It would cost exam boards some money, but it would be roundly welcomed by teachers and it would take away accusations of ‘cheating’ or grade creep levelled at teachers.
A rather unhidden truth is that our assessment models are largely dictated by the exam boards, of which we pay handsome sums of money for the privilege of the undertaking. I am not shocked when a company driven by a profit motive selects an assessment model which prioritises cost over quality. When I consider controlled assessments: the bastard child of coursework and examinations, the reality is that exam boards have a vested interest in an assessment model that are cheap, easily digitalised, easily replicable and mass produced tasks. Reductive written exams are the epitome of an easily outsourced and replicable model – but such exams alone do not provide a rich, holistic model of accurate assessment. Speaking and listening assessments, rigorously assessed, ideally with a balance of internal and external judgements, but at the very least recorded for standardising purposes, cost time and money. But we must ask, what is the best education worth? According to official accounts released by Companies House, Edexcel made profits of more than £60 million in 2010 – compared with just more than £10 million in 2004. AQA and OCR are actually charities, with a mission to “do good in education” – a better, more comprehensive assessment model would go some way to doing that ‘good‘. We must lobby fiercely for a system of assessment fit for the future.
If we truly measure what we value, rather than value what we measure, and we want to leverage as much social mobility as is possible in a system distorted by social inequality, then we must broaden our assessment model. We must encompass speaking and listening skills, with as many opportunities for public speaking as possible, into our assessment model if we want to develop students who can thrive and succeed.