Motivating the Lower achievers – Humanising the Education system – Ipsative Assessment

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March 12, 2015 by dragonflytraining

Author: Neil Atkin, @natkin

To view the courses Neil will be delivering this term, please click on the following link:

Think about something that you have little talent for. Now imagine that you spend your days continually assessed on that area that you lack talent in. You are constantly compared to your peers and shown how poor you are.

I love singing, but sadly have very little talent, not helped by congenital hearing loss. I wasn’t aware of my lack of ability, choosing to ignore the negative comments until I used the Playstation game Singstar that brutally and quantitatively confirmed how bad I was. Did this motivate me to try harder ?  It did briefly, although it was more about trying to find a song I could sing (Clash: Should I stay or should I go!) but being trashed by everyone soon lost its appeal and now I don’t sing any more in public. Which is no great loss to the world, but it is to me.

The thought that singing ability could be what the education system values allows me to empathise with the lower achievers. Of spending my days singing in front of others and however hard I try most other people are better than me. I may have other talents (I may be deluded here) but these are not recognised. My only value is my singing, the good singers are celebrated and their superiority over me quantified and celebrated.. This carries on for 11 years until in relief I leave an education system that has utterly failed and humiliated me.

This is how many lower achievers spend their school life. You are really not very good and if you put lots of effort in you probably still wont be. You can argue for a growth mindset at this point (which I believe in to a point) or take the view that we are telling penguins that they might be able to fly if they flap their wings really hard (reality also has a place).

Research from the EPPI in 2002 has found that Summative Assessment, so loved by those who are good at it and who also run the system  can be highly motivating to some higher achievers , but damaging to many others with the lower achievers particularly vulnerable.

The current widespread use of summative assessment and tests is supported by a range of arguments. The points made include that not only do tests indicate standards to be aimed for and enable these standards to be monitored, but that they also raise standards. Proponents claim that tests cause students, as well as teachers and schools, to put more effort into their work on account of the rewards and penalties that can be applied on the basis of the results of tests. In opposition to these arguments is the claim that increase in scores is mainly the consequence of familiarization with the tests and of teaching directed specifically towards answering the questions, rather than developing the skills and knowledge intended in the curriculum. It is argued that tests motivate only some students and increase the gap between higher and lower achieving students; moreover, tests motivate even the highest achieving students towards performance goals rather than to learning goals, as required for continuing learning.

What were the findings ?

Evidence of impact – Remember this was from 2002

Between them, the identified studies considered a number of the component aspects of motivation, but none considered all. The following main findings emerged from studies providing high-weight evidence:

• After the introduction of the National Curriculum Tests in England, lowachieving pupils had lower self-esteem than higher-achieving pupils,whilst beforehand there was no correlation between self-esteem and achievement.

• When passing tests is high stakes, teachers adopt a teaching style which emphasises transmission teaching of knowledge, thereby favouring those students who prefer to learn in this way and disadvantaging and lowering the self-esteem of those who prefer more active and creative learning experiences.

• Repeated practice tests reinforce the low self-image of the lower achieving students.

• Tests can influence teachers’ classroom assessment which may be interpreted by students as purely summative, regardless of the teacher’s intentions, possibly as a result of teachers’ over-concern with performance rather than process.

• Students are aware of a performance ethos in the classroom and that the tests give only a narrow view of what they can do.

• Students dislike high-stakes tests, show high levels of test anxiety (particularly girls) and prefer other forms of assessment.

• Teachers have a key role in supporting students to put effort into their learning activities.

• Feedback on assessments has an important role in determining further learning. Students are influenced by feedback from earlier performance on similar tasks in relation to the effort they invest in further tasks.

• Teacher feedback that is ego-involving rather than task-involving can influence the effort students put into further learning and their orientation towards performance rather than learning goals.

• High-stakes assessment can create a classroom climate in which transmission teaching and highly structured activities predominate and which favour only those students with certain learning dispositions.

• High-stakes tests can become the rationale for all that is done in classrooms, permeating teacher-initiated assessment interactions.

• Goal orientations are linked to effort and self-efficacy.

• Teacher collegiality is important in creating an assessment ethos that supports students’ feelings of self-efficacy and effort.

• An education system that puts great emphasis on evaluation produces students with strong extrinsic orientation towards grades and social status.

It would appear that the more importance we put on summative assessment the more likely our education system is to become;

  • A narrow, what gets tested gets taught, system
  • Focussed on performance rather than learning with all the damage that this entails
  • A qualification system rather than an education system
  • Highly divisive with those exam decoders motivated by success and those without this arguably arbitrary skill
  • One that only values those high performers and there is evidence these high achievers at school do not continue into society as high achievers in life  (link to blog)
  • One that dismally fails and alienates many students who leave feeling they have no value and have had their school years wasted

Does these sound depressingly familiar?

Formative assessment (see blog here for ideas ) has developed hugely where students are told what they need to do to improve, however this for some has only limited value. Would I be motivated to sing in public if after tuition I went from being appalling to pretty awful? Probably not. The system has inherently damaged many of these students and caused them to withdraw from putting in effort. You can only be humiliated if you have appeared to have tried. Want to keep your self esteem? Then don’t participate, show you don’t care or deliberately under perform to demonstrate your contempt for the system.

It doesn’t matter how good your formative assessment is if your students cant see the point in improving and are still measured against their peers.

Enter Ipstative Assessment

Rather than comparing yourself to the world, you look at creating personal bests. I am a cyclist and if I compared myself to Chris Hoy or Bradley Wiggins I could never feel good about myself. I am however motivated to improve my best times and that has sufficient value to not care how far behind the others I a would be.

This is the fundamental principle behind appositive testing. Research has been limited to distance learners but the results encouraging here  and workshop files here 

You mark progress rather than simply products. Bringing in formative assessment in order to improve their appositive mark.

To give a measured grade a students work is compared to a previous piece of work

If a student has improved from 50% to 60% they would get an ipsative mark of 10%

The focus is on improvement and being the best that you can be hence everyone can make progress

The research which was the effects on distance learners looks highly encouraging and it makes sense as a human being.

I can find limited evidence of it being used in classrooms so please get in touch if it has been trialled and any thoughts on it


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