Improving assessment in Irish education

US-based testing company Prometric committed almost €1 million to support assessment research at DCU which led to the appointment of Professor Michael O’Leary as Prometric Chair of Assessment and director of DCU’s new Centre for Assessment Research, Policy and Practice in Education (CARPE) in 2016.

Under his guidance, the Centre has made a strong start working to enhance the practice of assessment across all levels of the educational system through high quality research, professional development and establishing global networks. In 2016, CARPE established a formal link with the prestigious Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment and hosted its inaugural public lecture with Professor Jannette Elwood from Queen’s University Belfast on teacher and student experiences of the ‘predictability’ of the Leaving Certificate.

In this interview, he describes how philanthropic support enables him to improve assessment practice in Irish education.

What attracted you to the Prometric Chair in Assessment position?

I have spent my whole life involved in assessment in one way or another as a primary teacher, a researcher, and a university lecturer. Assessment has a great influence on the lives of learners – it has a way of making or breaking people – we all have very strong memories of being assessed as students or children and we gain a lot of our sense of self as a learner from the assessments that we sat. It has the potential to make a very big difference to people’s lives.

What are the major projects you are currently working on with CARPE? 

Our research spans all levels of education from primary school right through to third and even fourth level. We are involved in an important national project on the use of standardised literacy and numeracy tests in primary schools and are beginning to engage with the topic of teacher assessments for Junior and Leaving Certificate, although this work is in its early stages.

We are involved in a lot of really interesting projects at the moment such as the Assessment for Learning and Teaching (ALT) project which is all about creating tools that lead to dynamic learning situations where assessments are used to show learners how they can improve; where assessment is really about supporting teaching and learning rather than assessments done at the end of a learning period that just tell people what level they are at, if they are competent and whether they will go to college.

In response to the needs of our funders, some of our work also looks at credentialing and licensure for workplace assessment. We are exploring exciting developments like the use of animation in testing and exams using web technology – specifically the ability to supervise remote testing. All of these issues which impact on workplace assessment also have great relevance for the formal education sector, particularly at third level where in the future, international students could potentially study remotely and sit their exams without travelling to Ireland.

What impact do you believe CARPE research will have on Irish education?

We are broadening the scope of how we think about assessment and communicating a key message that assessment is about more than traditional formal testing. Instead, assessment has to be first and foremost in the service of learning so that it can enhance teaching and learning. Truly deep expertise in the area of assessment is lacking in Ireland and indeed internationally – this is also something that we are hoping to address through our doctoral programme.

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