Quality education and COVID-19


Quality education and COVID-19

The challenge of validity, objectivity, reliability in the reality of alternative assessments

Greg-Louis Austin

Sunday, May 31, 2020

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Quality assurance in education can be a complex set of activities, including quality of applicants, quality of students, quality of academic delivery, quality of support systems, and quality of graduates. If simply examined from a system perspective we must consider the impact of our decisions as educational leaders and managers in terms of input, process, and output. This analysis has to be made at all educational levels through a quality improvement lens that incorporates the plan, do, check, and act cycle.

Whether we face it now or later, educational leaders and administrators at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels must ask important questions like: Has COVID-19 provided the opportunity for (re)assessment and (re)evaluation of our operations? Will we sustain the crisis management modalities with the substandard quick fixes?

An indication of possible answers is given based on the decisions of some key stakeholders in the local and regional educational sectors.

PEP it 'down'

At the primary level, the Primary Exit Profile (PEP) assessment has been truncated to the use of grades 4 and 5 scores only with an assessment of sorts for the first 20 days when schools reopen in September. By then, these students would have been in their 'new' schools and one wonders if this 20-day 'assessment' will differ from orientation-based activities.

While a reduction in quantity may not be synonymous with a reduction in quality, curiosity or intellectual enquiry would question if this is sufficient. There has been no quantitative analysis, at least not in the public domain, where gaps in this arrangement could be identified, and so the quality in relation to validity of these revised assessment arrangements remains questionable.

I cannot help but reflect on the comments made by educators and even parents regarding the allegation of “over-testing” by PEP — and even its predecessor, the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT). It could then, perhaps, be justified that the quality of PEP is maintained or even improved through this PEP 'down' arrangement. The secondary education system will give the testimonials and, hopefully, we will be witnesses of the progress of these students — outputs of the primary education system — as they cross this educational boundary to be inputs of secondary education.

'Secondary' quality

Educational leaders and administrators at the secondary level, though impacted by the potential variances in the incoming cohort of students, are faced with a primary challenge of managing the 5th form (grade 11) and upper 6th form (Grade 13) students who are about to exit. The Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) has made its decision in staging examinations starting July with results expected in September, but what of the changes in the administration of these examinations? Heavy reliance will be made on Paper 1 (multiple choice questions) assessments underpinned by school-based assessments (SBA) and internal assessments (IA) scores, respectively. The use of SBAs and IAs were always riddled with criticisms regarding the quality of assessments and, in some cases, disparities were obvious as examiners sought explanations for the incongruence between the almost perfect SBA grades and those achieved under examination conditions. Educational psychologists could perhaps provide some justification regarding these disproportions. The educational administrators at the tertiary level must now make adjustments regarding matriculation requirements to ensure that students can access tertiary education with results pending.

Triple impact at the tertiary level

Consistent with systems analysis, educational administrators must now consider, as priority, the impact of these assessment changes to the input, process, and output of their operations at the tertiary level. The triple impact involves the quality of the applicants (input), quality of assessments (process), and quality of graduates (output).

The matriculation standards are generally outlined and relied heavily on the passes of CXC's Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate (CSEC) and Caribbean Advanced Proficiency Examination (CAPE) papers, and so one must consider the impact when there have been major changes to the assessment of these examinations.

There are two major things to consider — the timing of the publication of the results and impact of the changes in assessment as a true reflection of the knowledge, understanding and expression of the students.

Educational administrators are now forced to employ creative measures to maintain student numbers while maintaining the quality of educational processes. Having foreknowledge of the impact of the validity issues resulting from SBA- and IA-based and Paper 1 assessments, universities and colleges could perhaps request high school transcripts that would allow for a more comprehensive assessment of the competence of these potential students.

Other responses to these changes brought about by COVID-19 could include 'staggered' matriculation, wherein applicants are allowed to begin on the basis of passes at the lower level (for example, at CAPE, where both units are required), and allow for a period of a semester or academic year for the full matriculation to be met. This could be favourable also to the external educational gatekeepers, like accreditation agencies, licensure bodies, councils, and professional organisations. Additionally, consideration could be made for a dual intake system (where it does not exist) to allow for students to matriculate without prejudice in semester two — January 2021. These responses would also improve the equity situation among potential university and college students, giving all a fair chance of attending university having met the matriculation requirements.

Regarding assessments at the tertiary level, a question remains: How is quality assured in the reality of alternative assessments? These alternative assessments are characterised by changes in the assessment modalities in predominantly virtual spaces. The educational assessment experts warn of the care that must be taken to mitigate against the potential negative impacts of these drastic changes in assessment formats, especially when originally designed for face-to-face modality.

While COVID-19 highlighted some flaws in the education system, it has provided opportunities for educational administrators to consider alternative pathways of academic delivery to maintain a level of functioning of their academic processes. This includes the preparation of graduates for the world of work as, not only were theory-based final assessments adversely affected, but also the corporative education components, including industrial attachments, clinical rotations, and internships.

Educational quality imperatives post-COVID-19

The quality impacts are very pronounced in this matter and one cannot help but ask: Are these 'scaled down' assessment modalities sufficient to satisfy the quality imperatives of validity, objectivity and reliability? As we reorganise our educational systems, I envision that the quality professionals will be fully occupied analysing the influx of revised, updated, and even new policies pertaining not only to assessment, but other critical areas like curriculum development, student services, advisement, academic quality audits, and accreditation.

Transformational leadership will be critical as educational administrators brace themselves to cushion the impact of possible repercussions of the hurried, unplanned changes that had to be made in response to this COVID-19 crisis. Irrespective of the educational level, care must be taken to ensure that the 'new' or 'newly adopted' education processes meet the quality standards of the education sector in producing graduates who have attained knowledge and competences to be functional in an employment space also affected by this pandemic.

Change management will be critical as school leaders develop protocols for the 'new-normal' post-COVID-19 era, while ensuring that quality assurance remains at the helm as we prepare our graduates to work diligently and creatively, to think generously and honestly, in advancing the welfare of the whole human race.

Greg-Louis Austin is a senior quality assurance officer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, as well as a director of the Institute of Educational and Administrative Leadership Jamaica (IEAl-J). Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or glaustin@utech.edu.jm.

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