Challenging the status quo: The potential of assessment for learning

Broadfoot, P. (2007) An Introduction to Assessment. London: Continuum, chapter 10, pp. 109-113.

From summative to formative

As previous chapters in this book* have made clear, most of the history of educational assessment has been concerned with the development and use of devices for measuring student achievement for purposes of communication, whether these purposes be the certification of achievement, the selection of individuals or the evaluation of a particular initiative or programme. More recently, the same set of perspectives has been extended into the assessment of teacher quality, institutional quality and the quality of substantial parts of the education system itself such as school performance or higher-education teaching.

As was made clear in the chapter on evaluation, however, all assessment has the potential to be formative as well as, or instead of, summative; to be developmental in its impact, rather than simply being concerned with some aspect of the communication of information, contributing instead directly to the learning of either individuals or institutions. In what follows, we shall explore some of the implications of these developments both in terms of the emerging research evidence and how it is being used. The discussion will focus particularly on assessment for learning with regard to students rather than institutions since this is the area in which, so far, the most radical developments have been taking place.

It is only relatively recently that the potential of assessment directly to support learning has begun to come under the spotlight as it is increasingly being recognized that ‘raising standards involves focusing beyond what children learn, to how they learn and how teachers intervene in this process’ (McGuiness 1999). Longstanding work by psychologists in the field of learning has started to inform and be linked to more pragmatically driven work by educationists trying out particular techniques in the classroom. Such work has begun to offer some powerful insights into radically new ways of using assessment for learning rather than of learning - what has hitherto been referred to, in this book, as ‘assessment for curriculum’. In

Please note that cross-references refer to chapters in the original publication, not this volume.

this part of the book, we shall explore the powerful evidence underpinning these new assessment perspectives and practices and some of the practical ways in which they are now being implemented. Our discussion will be framed by three overarching questions:

  • • What role can assessment play in promoting learning whether of individuals or of institutions?
  • • How can assessment be used as an instrument of empowerment?
  • • What is the relative importance of assessment as compared to other interventions in promoting learning and developing quality?

To begin to answer these questions we need first to develop the distinction between assessment of learning and assessment for learning in terms of the distinction between formative and summative assessment that was briefly referred to in Chapter 1 since these terms are now often used interchangeably in the educational community. Assessment of learning refers to the very general communication function of assessment, whereas assessment for learning refers to what I termed earlier assessment as curriculum. The distinction between summative and formative assessment, while evoking many of the same distinctions, is also rather more specific, implying a particular purpose and assessment approach.

We may define summative assessment as assessment that takes place at particular times when achievement is to be reported, typically, against the same explicit criteria. It is likely to emphasize reliability and often to involve some kind of moderation or quality-assurance procedure. Essentially its purpose is to sum up the progress of an individual in relation to some given criterion. The key characteristics of summative assessment are summarized below:

  • • It takes place at certain intervals when achievement is reported.
  • • It relates to progression in learning compared against public criteria.
  • • Results for different students can be combined since they share the same criteria.
  • • It requires methods that are as reliable as possible without endangering validity.
  • • It involves quality-assurance procedures.
  • • It should be based on evidence from the full range of learning goals.

By contrast, formative assessment has to be planned as an integral part of teaching and is orientated to supporting progression in learning. It may be either criterion-referenced or student-referenced and its purpose is to lead to action that will support further learning and attainment. It is a process used by teachers and students to recognize and respond to learning in order to enhance it and identify next steps. Another definition suggests that ‘formative assessment refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers and by the students in assessing themselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged’. Such assessment becomes ‘formative assessment when the evidence is actually used, to adapt teaching to meet students’ learning needs (Black and Wiliam 1998).

Thus formative assessment is typically conducted in the learning setting but is not synonymous with teacher or continuous assessment. At its heart it must be a dynamic process that has a real effect on learning having been planned and integrated into the teaching/learning process itself. Used properly, it gives students opportunities to practise skills and to consolidate learning, and provides opportunities for reinforcement as well as guiding further instructional and learning activities. In the form of corrective feedback it can help students to develop self-monitoring skills and to feel a sense of achievement. Truly formative assessment involves students themselves as partners in the learning process, assessing their own performance and deciding their next steps, as well as being empowered with the knowledge of how best to take those next steps. Some examples of how this is currently being done are discussed in Chapter 11.

To fully understand the potential and significance of good formative assessment to enhance learning, it is necessary to examine the nature of learning itself in a little more detail. This will enable us to make the connections between the key factors influencing learning and how these are provided for in formative assessment - assessment for learning or even assessment as learning - ‘the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there’ (Assessment Reform Group 2002).

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