“Reimagining the futures of assessment with teacher professional autonomy”, by Sam Sellar.

written by: Sam Sellar published 2020-10-29 updated 2020-10-30

How do ‘next generation’ assessments change the conditions for teacher professional autonomy? How can the profession respond at the level of research strategy?

Assessment, as Basil Bernstein argued, is one of the three key message systems in education alongside pedagogy and curriculum, and thus a critical element of teachers’ work. The professional autonomy of teachers to shape these message systems is a longstanding principle enshrined in the 1966 UNESCO and International Labour Organisation (ILO) Recommendation Concerning the Status of Teachers, which states that teachers

should be given the essential role in the choice and the adaptation of teaching material, the selection of textbooks and the application of teaching methods … [and] be free to make use of such evaluation techniques as they may deem useful for the appraisal of pupils' progress. (UNESCO/ILO, 1966, p.8)

The landscape of education assessment today looks very different to that of the 1960s, and recent developments in assessment programmes and technologies have clearly changed the contexts in which teachers choose teaching materials, apply teaching methods and use assessment techniques. Two key changes include the increased influence of international large-scale assessments (ILSAs) such as the OECD’s PISA and new technology-enabled ‘next generation’ assessments.

Technology-enabled ‘next generation’ assessment describes innovations in assessment techniques made possible by digital technologies, particularly the generation and analysis of larger volumes and varieties of data about students in testing situations. These techniques are being integrated into ILSAs, but may also be embedded in other learning software developed by the EdTech industry. The growth of ILSAs and next generation assessments reflects the changing nature of education governance as new actors, like international organisations and private companies, play a stronger hand alongside governments and the profession.

The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating the use of digital platforms in education, which provide the infrastructure for ‘next generation’ assessment. During the early months of the pandemic, Ben Williamson (https://codeactsineducation.wordpress.com) provided insightful analyses of how ‘emergency edtech’ moved quickly to create ‘pandemic markets’ and embed their digital platforms. Many people have quickly come to rely upon new technologies to teach, learn and meet after the pandemic caused the closure of schools and universities, and the EdTech industry see this as an opportunity to disrupt education systems.

The key issue with next generation assessments is that they are developed by agencies, and in contexts, that are disconnected from teachers’ professional judgment. The recently published Global Framework of Professional Teaching Standards (UNESCO/EI, 2019, p.4) is built upon twelve core principles, including that ‘[e]ffective and ethical school organisational practice is built on teachers’ professional judgment and standards of practice defined by the teaching profession’. ILSAs and technology-enabled assessments are not inherently ‘bad’ developments for education systems, the teaching profession and students; indeed, they may provide important benefits and opportunities. However, their growth and spread does undermine autonomy if teachers’ professional judgements do not inform these new methods, materials and techniques.

The challenge we face is two-fold: (1) we must understand how these developments in assessment change the conditions and capacities for teacher professional autonomy; and (2) we must identify how professional judgment can be re-connected to the development and use of these assessments.

Friedman (1999) has provided a useful conceptualisation of teacher professional autonomy that can be adapted to help us consider this two-fold challenge. Professional autonomy depends upon the opportunity to take part in decisions that are organisational and pedagogical, and these decisions can relate to matters of principle and more routine matters. This conceptualisation, as illustrated in Figure 1, provides us with two axes (organisational-pedagogical; principle-routine) and four quadrants of professional decision-making: (1) principle organisational; (2) principle pedagogical; (3) routine organisational; (4) routine pedagogical. This cartography can be used to analyse how new developments in assessment affect teachers’ involvement in decision-making and to identify potential sites of intervention to strengthen this involvement.

Figure 1. Cartography of professional decision-making (adapted from Friedman 1999).

Let’s consider the example of a hypothetical software package called ‘NextGen’, developed by a private company that uses machine learning to automatically score student performance on a range of tasks. NextGen is based on learning theories favoured by the company’s education consultants and the operationalisation of these theories into an assessment framework that is used by developers to train their algorithms. A large school system buys NextGen because it is compatible with their current learning management system and a professional development programme to support its use in classrooms.

In this example, principle organisational decisions regarding the procurement of NextGen are based on the school system buying-in to Bill Gates’ agenda to standardise data in schooling. System leaders could choose which software to purchase, but their options for compatible products were limited. NextGen’s developers, without consulting teachers who will use the software, make the principle pedagogical decisions. The professional development programme stresses the opportunities that teachers have to decide how they use NextGen in their classrooms, but these are routine pedagogical decisions made in a context already shaped by the principle ones. A group of schools that are dissatisfied with NextGen choose not to employ it, which is a routine organisational decision to ‘opt out’ that does not provide their students with a better alternative. At the routine level, it is easy to become ensnared in the “exhaustive pragmatics” (Berlant, 2011, p.261) of negotiating the least bad response to principle decisions made elsewhere.

Let’s turn now to a brief consideration of how teacher organisations and education researchers, across academia and unions, might respond in this example. As we have seen in the US, ‘opting out’ of assessments can be a powerful response and it can change the conditions for principle organisational decisions. Consider, for example, the collapse of InBloom, an initiative supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that aimed to establish a centralised platform for data sharing in US schools (Bulger, McCormick & Pitcairn, 2017). While the tactical response to InBloom, led by parents and activists, was successful in this case, we must also consider broader strategic responses. These require teacher organisations and teachers to be more strongly involved in principle organisational and pedagogical decisions shaping ‘next generation’ assessments today.

Networks of policy actors and technology vendors, who have become increasingly successful at mobilising their visions of the future, shape education governance today. Key figures in the tech world have ‘been given positions of authority as experts in “reimagining” education for the future, in ways which reflect their pre-existing visions, their financial support for technology-centred models of schooling, and their efforts to influence policy agendas’ (Williamson & Hogan, 2020, p.2).

In a recent paper for the UNESCO Futures of Education initiative, which I co-authored with J-C Couture and Roar Grottvik (Couture, Grottvik & Sellar 2020), we argue that teacher organisations and education researchers need to focus their efforts on building similar networks for reimagining the futures of education. In these futures, teacher judgment would be more strongly involved in principle pedagogical decision-making. In the example above, this might involve unions and academics pursuing research funding to co-produce an alternative assessment technology with teachers, and in the process reimagining what assessment should be for the next generation.

The pandemic has caused a glitch in our educations systems. If we do not find ways to strengthen professional involvement in principle decision-making, instead focusing on routine responses, then as Lauren Berlant (2015, p.393) writes, ‘the reinitializing of a system that has been stalled by a glitch might involve local patching or debugging … while not generating a more robust or resourceful apparatus’. Instead, and by seeking to re-imagine new futures for assessment, we could ‘hold out the prospect of a world worth attaching to that’s something other than an old hope’s bitter echo’ (Berlant, 2015, p.414).


Berlant, L. (2011). Cruel optimism. Durham, NC : Duke University Press.

Berlant, L. (2016). The commons: Infrastructures for troubling times. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 34(3), 393-419.

Bulger, M., McCormick, P. & Pitcairn, M. (2017). The legacy of InBloom. Accessed 27 October 2020, https://datasociety.net/pubs/ecl/InBloom_feb_2017.pdf

Couture, J-C, Grøttvik, R. & Sellar, S. (2020). A profession learning to become: the promise of collaboration between teacher organizations and academia. Accessed 27 October 2020, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000374156

Friedman, I. A. (1999). Teacher-perceived work autonomy: The concept and its measurement. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 59(1), 58-76.

Education International & UNESCO (2019). Global framework of professional teaching standards. Accessed 27 October 2020, https://issuu.com/educationinternational/docs/2019_ei-unesco_framework

UNESCO& ILO (1999). Recommendation concerning the status of teachers. Accessed 27 October 2020, https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000114048.page=25

Williamson, B. & Hogan, A. (2020). Commercialisation and privatisation in/of education in the context of Covid-19. Accessed 27 October 2020, https://go.ei-ie.org/GRCovid19