Assessment in social work: a guide for learning and teaching
Social work assessment shares a number of features with other major areas of study in social work education. For instance, assessment is multi-dimensional, as this guide has shown, a fact that presents logistical as well as pedagogic challenges to both educators and students confined by time-limited courses. Assessment is also a contested topic with no absolute arbiter of the ‘correct’ approach. Accordingly, education on assessment cannot be reduced to learning ‘the approach’ since there are competing approaches and different conditions or contexts in which they are claimed to be appropriate. Learning ‘how’, has to be accompanied by learning ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘why’. The aim of this guide has been to assist in making these features of assessment more explicit and thereby assisting educators, and their students, in engaging with them.
This concluding section takes up three sets of issues:
- research on the teaching and learning of assessment
- suggested reflection on the ‘construction’ of assessment
- key contexts in the future practice of assessment (connecting to earlier coverage).
In addition to the features mentioned above, assessment shares with other major areas of study in social work a need for information on the outcomes of teaching and learning. Work has been in progress on the general question of outcomes since 2005, aiming, through the OSWE Project (Evaluating the Outcomes of Social Work Education), to build the capacity and capability of social work educators to evaluate social work education (Burgess, 2006). Although teaching and learning of assessment is not the specific focus of the OSWE constituent projects, it is a clear candidate for future research attention as capacity and capability for evaluation expand. The material in this guide suggests that many factors will have a claim on researchers’ attention in evaluating outcomes, including learning content, structure, method and participants. The potential subject matter for research is wider still, however, and is suggested in the discussion and questions for educators on page 88.
Reflection on the construction of assessment
It was argued earlier in this guide that it may be useful to think of assessment in its many dimensions as a construction shaped by a number of possible influences, that is, cultural, economical, political, organisational and professional. Each of these influences exercises its effects on the goals of assessment and the forms it takes, in more or less powerful ways. The models of assessment taught on social work courses, found in agencies and applied by social workers in their assessments, ‘carry’ these influences. This is not to say that people and organisations are unavoidably docile and unwitting ‘carriers’, but if influences are to be understood and responded to in an informed way, they must be unearthed and reflected on. An important task of educators is to facilitate the reflective process with students. The analysis offered in this guide hopes to assist in the task.
It may possible to cast further light on the social construction of assessment by thinking beyond the particular models and types that this guide has discussed, to assessment as discourse. A discourse defines what may be ‘said’ about a subject, governing how it can be meaningfully discussed; language, visual imagery and moral positions constitute the discourse. The language of a discourse draws its boundaries and defines its content. Participation in that discourse, by courses, educators, agencies, authors of textbooks and frameworks, service users and practitioners, constructs and sustains it by the expression and application of its ideas. Reflection on the discourse of assessment would include examination of the following elements (adapted from Hall, 1997):
- statements about assessment that give a particular kind of knowledge of it – such as, ‘assessment is a core social work skill’ (Crisp et al, 2003); it is ‘an important tool for policy makers’ (Clarkson, 2006); ‘self-assessment recognises … the expertise of service users and … carers’ (Qureshi, nd)
- the rules and practices that prescribe particular ways of talking about the topic and exclude others, governing what is ‘sayable’ and ‘thinkable’ at a given historical moment – for instance, that ‘officials’, not users and carers, set eligibility thresholds
- the ‘subjects’ who personify the discourse – for example, historically, the deserving or undeserving poor, the ‘needy’ or deprived client, the empowered service user
- how particular kinds of knowledge of assessment gain authority – for instance through the activities of government, university courses, professional publications and associations, care agencies, service user and carer movements
- the practices within organisations and institutions for dealing with the subjects whose conduct is being regulated or organised – such as frameworks, eligibility criteria, theories of need or behaviour
- the emergence of different discourses over time, in which prevailing ideas are supplanted by new conceptions of assessment that have the power and authority to regulate social practices in new ways – for example, from decline of the ideas of absolute agency control towards the rise of user-led models.
A moment’s reflection on the foregoing agenda shows two things. First, that this guide itself constructs and is constructed by the ideas outlined above. Second, that assessment as described in the sources for this guide seems actually to consist of more than one discourse. For example, the technical, procedurally oriented, agency-controlled, eligibility-focused approaches discussed at different points in the guide appear to represent aspects of a particular assessment discourse. Furthermore, that discourse is challenged by rival approaches. Some social work educators in the Salford CSWR study sought to promote an alternative. They invoked terms like ‘formulaic’ and ‘mechanical’ to characterise the disapproved discourse and to distinguish it from a favoured one that is reflexive and humanistic (Shardlow et al, 2005, p 27). Reflecting on assessment in the ways described in this section raises a number of questions pertinent to social work education.
Questions for educators
- What are the distinctive ideas about assessment represented by social work programmes and their educators, and do those ideas group into a recognisable discourse or discourses?
- Do particular discourses predominate in academic or practice teaching and, if so, what influences appear to account for this predominance, giving the ideas authority and as embodying ‘truth’?
- How does a given discourse stand up against competing discourses, not only in the classroom but in a student’s placement and subsequent employed practice?
- How may students be prepared to practise effectively in situations where assessment discourses compete?
The kinds of systematic reflection on the nature and construction of discourses in assessment suggested here do not apply solely to assessment. Similar questions are relevant to learning for other domains of practice. Nor are these questions ‘merely abstract and theoretical’. They seek to advance the aim of improving the experience of people who use social care services by improving understanding both of the complex arena of assessment and of the enterprise of teaching and learning.
Assessment and future practice contexts
The social work and social care workforce of the future (ADSS Cymru, 2005; Department of Health and Department for Education and Skills, 2006; RPA, 2006) will need to function effectively as collaborative practitioners in two significant contexts:
- a care system that strives increasingly to be interprofessional and based on integrated organisational structures and inter-agency partnerships
- services that are user-involved.
The contested nature of assessment has been a discussion point, so it is important to note that the second of these contexts represents a significant area of consensus in assessment, that is, recognition by government and social work of the principle of involvement of service users and carers. There is also an emerging understanding that different and extended forms of involvement in assessment, discussed in Sections 21–23, are needed to respond to the various needs and expectations of service users and carers.
Taking the two contexts together, social work brings distinctive contributions to each, particularly its social work values and a social model of care. Furthermore, assessment is a critical arena for ensuring that a social perspective and social work values contribute fully to the provision of care. However, the ability of social work and social care to make these contributions will depend on more than the knowledge and skills in collaborative practice needed to negotiate with different professions and organisations. The ability to make an effective contribution will also depend, in the reported words of a government minister, on having ‘parity of status and esteem’ [with other professions] (Brindle, 2006). The implied alternative, the report states, is to remain a junior partner.
Achievement of professional parity is a complex matter and depends on a number of conditions. One is government endorsement, and the role and authority structures that accompany it. Another is recognised professional competence. Recognition of professional competence in assessment requires continued research and development of the knowledge and skills base, and effective social work education. These measures are unlikely to remove contestation from the field of assessment, and that should not be the test of effectiveness of research and education. Effectiveness will be found more reliably in the ability to improve the quality of the service users’ and carers’ experience of assessment and its outcome.