Assessment is an essential component of the teaching and learning cycle but sadly it is one that is often misunderstood. If we are to have any hope of getting it right we must begin with a sound understanding of what we hope to achieve, what is being assessed, who is being assessed and what will be done once the results are available. Sadly the critical questions that lead to this understanding are too often not asked and the answers not clearly communicated resulting in confusion and for students, anxiety around the entire process.
Interpretations of the role of assessment vary and individual and collective assumptions about assessment are responsible for much of the confusion. To many, assessment is the summative measure of ones ability on a given task and it is revealed by the test instrument. In this model the assessment is a device for measuring the learning that has occurred and its result is most often a number that can determine a rank amongst peers. For an individual who holds to this model of assessment alternative uses of the term will cause misunderstandings. Assessment as an ongoing means of gaining insights into the effectiveness of a learning programme, assessment as continuous feedback and guidance towards success will be seen as excessive testing and pressure or result in a belief that there is no assessment of learning occurring. Unfortunately for an education system trying to modernise its approach this view of assessment continues to be held by many. In this model ‘The giving of marks and the grading function are overemphasized, while the giving of useful advice and the learning function are underemphasized. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)
In contrast to a summative view of assessment is a ‘formative’ model in which assessment is an ongoing process that informs and guides learning goals. In 1998 Black and Wiliam found that formative assessment produces effect sizes of 0.4 and 0.7, significantly larger than for most other educational interventions. Since then formative assessment has been commonly viewed as a three part process; assessment of learning (summative learning within a process model), assessment for learning and assessment as learning. In this model assessment becomes part of the learning process and actively involves students and teachers in a collaborative effort to determine what is understood and what is yet to be mastered with the process towards mastery informed by the assessment process. It is a process that utilises multiple measures and pathways to information about the learner with the goal being to provide information that the learner is able to apply. It includes questioning, effective feedback, self-assessment, peer assessment and critical reflective practice.
Getting assessment right is critical if we hope to develop a growth mindset in our students. Carol Dweck points to the role of feedback in developing a growth mindset and a traditional view of summative assessment can damage this. If assessment is viewed as a measure of ones ability with good performances viewed as an area of strength and poor performances the result of innate defect then growth will not occur. Alternatively if assessment is seen as a measure of where an individual is presently located towards their learning goals and provides direction for them to move forward it becomes a powerful tool for growth.
Douglas Fisher and Nancy Fey describe a three-part process to bring clarity and purpose to assessment. They want teachers to begin with what they call ‘Feed-Up’, the sharing with the students the purpose of the learning. Feed-up tells the students what they are expected to gain from the experience and where the learning is headed. The ‘Feed-up’ should make what is later assessed transparent and predictable. Feed-back is provided such that the learner is made aware of the progress towards the goal established in the ‘Feed-up’. The results should clearly communicate to the learner what they are doing well and what they may improve. How a number or grade can do this is unknown. Lastly ‘feed-forward’ gives the learner direction for how to proceed, the steps they can take to improve their understanding.
Quality assessment will involve learners and teachers. The assessment that occurs must involve all members and components of the learning process. This means the assessment should inform the teacher’s practice and beyond the the school’s and the system’s practices. It should provide students with opportunities for self-assessment and provide them with tools and strategies to maximise the benefits of this. Stephen Chappuis, Jan Chappuis and Rick Stiggins report that; 1. Students learn best when they monitor and take responsibility for their own learning. 2. A mechanism should be in place for students to track their own progress on learning targets and communicate their status to others.
The role of peer assessment has been shown to empower learners and enhance agency. Peer assessment is shown to encourage deeper thinking and reflection (Cheng & Warren, 1999) and encourages students to think more (Stefani 1994). Li, Liu and Steckelberg (2010) showed in their study that the quality of feedback provided by individuals in the role of assessor, improved the quality of work they subsequently produced and recommend that efforts to enhance the quality of feedback should be pursued.
While the focus of assessment should be on its value to the learner the reality is that it also plays a role across schools and within wider systems of education. There is a need to assess the quality of learning between classes and between schools. The reality of this role for assessment is not going to go away but we owe to the profession, our parents and our students to be clear about which assessments are used for this purpose. Students should not be confused by an assessment that is significantly different to those they are familiar with, aware of those which are a valued part of their learning and those that exist to assess a school or a national system. Nor should parents or teachers be led to believe that these national standardised assessments are more valid than the quality assessment employed within a school. This is where clarity and transparency of purpose and audience is essential.
Chappuis et al. call for greater assessment literacy amongst educators.
'For example, because they understand what is appropriate at each of the three levels of assessment— both formatively and summatively—assessment-literate teachers would not : 1. Use a reading score from a state accountability test as a diagnostic instrument for reading group placement. 2. Use SAT scores to determine instructional effectiveness. 3. Rely solely on performance assessments to test factual knowledge and recall. 4. Assess learning targets requiring the "doing" of science with a multiple-choice test.’
Assessment literate teachers would be aware of the purpose of their assessments, use multiple measures effectively, understand who the assessment is for and how this impacts its function and design. They would include the learners in the process and enable their learners to be active participants in the process. They would use assessment to guide their students towards success and to enhance the quality of their teaching. They utilise the research available about effective assessment design and communicate their understanding of assessment to parents. Students with assessment literate teachers would see assessment as a beneficial piece of their learning, one that guides them towards greater success and a process that they play a part in such that they acquire a set of long life skills for self-assessment. They will see value in engaging in peer-assessment as a part of their metacognition and reflective practice and value the quality feedback they receive from their peers. Parents of these students would understand the role that assessment plays in their child’s learning and see the value it has in informing how they support their child. Last schools and systems would understand the place of assessment and provide appropriate support to their assessment literate teachers while being clear about the purposes of national testing.
by Nigel Coutts
Black, P & Wiliam, D (1998), Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment, School of Education, King’s College, London.
Li, L., Liu, X., & Steckelberg, A. (2010). Assessor or assessee: How student learning improves by giving and receiving peer feedback. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 41(3), 525-536.
Stefani, L. (1994). Peer, self and tutor assessment: Relative reliabilities. Studies In Higher Education, 19(1), 69-75.