ACEAB: Conference and Chairperson’s report 5th Conference of the Association of Commonwealth Examination and Accreditation Bodies Conference Report The 5th Conference of the Association of Commonwealth Examination and Accreditation Bodies was hosted by Umalusi at the Innovation Hub in Pretoria, South Africa, from 9 to 14 March 2008. The conference was very successful, and we believe it contributed to meaningful debate and sharing of lessons between colleagues of the Commonwealth. A booklet of abstracts of the papers delivered at the conference, as well as a compact disc with most of the papers, was presented to the delegates at the conference. Conference Statement We, over 80 representatives from examination and accreditation bodies, as well as other experts from the Commonwealth, gathered in Pretoria from the 9th to the 14th of March 2008 to share ideas about improving the quality of public education in the Commonwealth through assessment, accreditation and evaluation. We shared ideas on a range of challenges, including issues arising from the accreditation of learning institutions, quality assurance, and assessment for learning, types of assessment and the enacted curriculum, with assessment as a tool to evaluate the successful implementation thereof. An important thread that ran throughout the conference is the impact of poverty on learner achievements. Yet, one paper showed how, despite enormous constraints, quality education could be provided, thereby making a significant difference in the lives of learners. Another important thread was the capacity of teachers to enact curricula and the apparent mismatch of the results of internal continuous assessment and of external examinations. It became clear that in many cases, support to teachers should be enhanced. The quote that became the underlying theme of the conference is ‘the quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers’. While all participants agreed that examinations mark the end of an education cycle, debates on how the positive backwash effect of examinations could enhance teaching and learning, and inform interventions from the authorities, took place. Likewise, participants agreed that examinations are still used for selection, but that feedback from examinations could encourage good teaching and learning. An important consideration emerging in respect of examinations was the extent to which end-of-cycle assessment reflects only a snapshot of the child’s progression through his/her school career. We were reminded that learning only becomes evident if it is clear how the child has changed in relation to earlier stages of his/her schooling. In addition, the advantages of grading students seemed to outweigh the disadvantages associated with this approach – an approach that seemed to have been out of favour, but is now returning with a better understanding of its value. Linked to grading is the issue of the reliability of marking. It became evident that training has to take place in respect of marking, supported by standardization of marking schemes and quality assurance through monitoring, as well as by particular approaches such a ‘conveyor’ belt system of marking. Further, managing examination irregularities, a feature of all systems was discussed and recommendations for minimizing such occurrences were proposed. Interesting discussions were held on the use of assessment items as anchors for the maintenance of standards in examinations. Many states are implementing this approach and it is considered a useful method. The comparability of examination standards is considered important to ensure the integrity of exams. Many participants noted the difficulties with continuous internal assessment, ranging from the unreliability of the results to the appropriateness of the different types of internal assessment. Yet, internal assessment and student-centred learning seem to suggest that the closer assessment is to teaching and learning, the more valid such assessment could be, particularly in relation to the stresses and tensions created by large scale external assessment. Measures such as core skills testing tries to give an indication of the quality of teaching and learning at a particular point in time, with the hope that such information could inform improved professional practice and develop benchmarks for the system, but the delegates acknowledged that evaluation measures are not without problems. Further, Common Tasks of Assessment (CTAs), as an alternative to paper-based assessment, was interrogated, as an example of the possible invalidity, unreliability and unfairness of assessment instruments. The issue of the language of learning and assessment arose. Many member states have multi-cultural and multi-lingual societies, and the impact of languages used for teaching, learning and assessment, was discussed. While multi-lingualism seems to have many advantages, there are also constraints to be considered. Quality assurance of assessment was central to most of our discussions. The difficulties in respect of quality assurance within the context of geographical barriers, distance and remoteness from centres, again highlighted concerns about quality provisioning, as did the quality of assessments in the absence of external examinations. In addition, the contexts within which institutions are working were dealt with, making it clear that a quality assurance regime cannot be one-size-fits-all. In fact, the notion of ‘quality’ is a contested and contextualized one. We were reminded of the very different legislative frameworks within which member states function. It was evident that in many states, substantial changes are underway and that there is strong reliance on regional initiatives to harmonize qualification structures. In conclusion, we have made new friends, and been reunited with old ones. The Association makes it possible for us to remain in contact with each other and to continue sharing our experiences, lessons, research and research findings. We leave this conference with renewed enthusiasm, determined to contribute to the improvement of the quality of public education in the Commonwealth through credible assessment, meaningful quality assurance and continued evaluation of our systems.
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