Back in 2010, the consultancy firm McKinsey produced a seminal report on education entitled How the world's most improved school systems keep getting better, which has since had a major influence on the education policies of governments across the world.
The report found there is a strong correlation between what they term a school system's "improvement journey stage" and the "tightness of central control over the individual schools' activities and performance". While central control is necessary in the early stages, McKinsey's researchers found that once beyond that, the more freedom governments gave schools, the more the system tended to improve.
This was the same for assessment too. In the "poor" to "fair" journey, assessment tends to be carried out at the local level, and "is narrowly focused on achieving specific targets for particular grades in the basics of literacy and numeracy". But assessment at the "excellent" stage is far different, allowing for continuous improvement, and "expand[ing] to cover problem solving and more qualitative aspects".
Interestingly, America appears to be behind the curve when it comes to assessment. Only last October, just as he was leaving office, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared that American pupils were being tested in a way that was out of hand and ineffective. As one commentator summarised, "Contrary to President George W. Bush's law, many children have been left behind by the strategy of test-and-punish."
Duncan qualified that while, "Too much testing is bad... Walking away from assessment [would be] equally bad". It seems he has also read the McKinsey report - although perhaps he should have been influenced by it a little earlier in his tenure.
One person who has read the report carefully is Greg Watson, CEO of London-based GL Assessment. He recognises that Britain is considerably more advanced in terms of the level of freedom government has been giving schools over recent years. Britain's public services, he says, "have been innovative in general in terms of offering a blend of public, private and third-sector engagement", with deregulation and the tendency to slim down central government "encouraging innovation". One such innovation is the development of the type of assessment that McKinsey recognises comes when school systems hit the "great" and "excellent" stages.
This is not what Watson calls the "autopsy" style of assessment that remains prevalent in the US, the type that just scores at the end. But rather formative assessment, ongoing assessment that allows for self-development - diagnostic and personalised, rather than summative and score-keeping.
Some may be failing in maths, for example, because they are under-achieving, whereas others may be doing so due to lack of confidence. Assessment, done well, can help shine a light on this.
The rise of technology in recent years has transformed the way assessment can take place. Watson lists three key things that tech has made possible. Firstly, he says, assessment is much easier to deploy at scale: "There's no need to test pupils in a school hall - it can be done at the click of a mouse." Secondly, there is rapid feedback. This means, "teachers no longer need spend hours at home with a glass of wine and a green pen". Finally, the rise of technology allows for the pooling of assessment data. Schools can now compare with their neighbours; states can compare with other states that have a similar profile. You can compare by gender, socio-economic group, the list goes on.
This, Watson explains, allows for unprecedented teacher collaboration around assessment, something some of the Multi Academy Trusts in the UK, like Ark, are already pioneering. Teachers can compare good practice by looking objectively at data generated from assessment results. The aim, says Watson, is for "teachers to own assessment, for it to become a normal part of their kit bag".
The beauty of such formative assessment, he says, is that it transcends global boundaries in a way that curriculum content tends not to. GL Assessment is now used in over 100 countries because, "it focuses on the common features of what teachers do".
The international exchange of ideas regarding education is becoming ever-more important. There is much we can learn from other countries, says Watson, "Sweden is a pioneer in free schools. Shanghai has obviously been leading the way in maths. But Britain is leading the way in assessment and there is much other countries can learn from us."
While the greater freedom schools have been given in the UK has not always been welcomed by teachers, assessment certainly seems to be an area which has blossomed as a result. It may be worth taking another look at the McKinsey report and questioning whether, however painful initially, increased autonomy for schools may end up providing a better education for the next generation.