The Scope of LOA

In defining the scope of LOA, I argue that large-scale and school-based assessments need to be brought into alignment with an orientation towards learning. In other words, macro-level educational policies need to be implemented without creating negative impacts at the micro-level. It is necessary to move away from dichotomous views of assessment, such as large-scale versus learning-oriented approaches, and to consider how assessments of all kinds can be designed and used to support learning. This means reevaluating the traditional distinction made between summative and formative types of assessment and considering how various kinds of evidence from assessment can be used more effectively in complementary ways.

It is important to remember that many assessment procedures are typically used in school settings for a variety of different purposes, e.g., for placement, to check progress, or to award grades. Sometimes formal procedures similar to large-scale examinations are used, such as objective test formats (multiple choice, cloze, etc.), with scores or ratings kept as records of learners’ achievements. These results tend to be used within the school and its immediate societal context for the benefit of the learners themselves, other teachers, and family members. In this sense, they are considered lower stakes compared with large-scale examinations.

However, the most frequently occurring assessments in classrooms do not use formal testing methods but are integrated into regular teaching practice. These may be carefully planned but may also arise spontaneously from the affordances that occur in classroom interactions. Such observational practices enable immediate feedback to the learners and are at the heart of classroom teaching. They occur through a range of teacher-based techniques associated with good teaching practice, including questioning, eliciting, scaffolding, diagnosing, and providing feedback for reflection. TBA of this kind arises from the specific dynamics within a lesson and can enable the learners themselves to become “assessors” if they are encouraged to reflect on their own learning or to work collaboratively with their peers to understand learning processes and progression, i.e., to engage in self- and peer-assessment as a part of their classroom interactions.

Unlike the large-scale assessments that are nor integrated into learning processes in a fundamental way, TBA is necessarily associated with formative uses of assessment that are highly integrated. This kind of “observation-based” assessment received little attention in the language assessment literature until recently (Rea-Dickens, 2004), but there has been a growing body of work informed by the wider educational literature and general learning theories. Assessment thus becomes a central component of learning. This raises an important question: What is normal teaching practice, and when does it become assessment? Bennett (2011) addresses this question in a critical review of formative assessment, and this point is taken up below in considering the importance of evidence of learning within the systemic LOA model.

LOA Perspectives from around the World

In this section, I look at a number of educational contexts from around the world where alternatives to large-scale examinations have been proposed. It becomes clear from these perspectives that it is the elicitation and appropriate use of the evidence for specified teaching and learning purposes that is at the heart of the LOA concept.

In the UK, formative assessment and assessment for learning have become synonymous with the work of the Assessment Reform Group (ARG), a collaboration of academics from the University of Cambridge and King’s College London’s School of Education, who worked together between 1989 and 2010. Although the term “formative assessment” with its current meaning can be traced back to Bloom (1969), it was adopted by the ARG, and their interpretation of it proved influential worldwide. The ARG reviewed existing research on assessment in the UK and identified the problems caused by using large-scale assessment results to evaluate schools rather than individual pupils. They also recognized a need to separate formative from summative purposes of assessment and to place greater trust in teachers assessing their own students. Their subsequent work focusing on assessment to support learning largely confirmed these findings (Black &c Wiliam, 1998a).

Wiliam (2006), in discussing the problems caused by using large-scale assessment to evaluate the performance of schools, cites it as an example of Goodhart’s Law, which states that once a social indicator is made a target for the purpose of conducting policy, it loses the information that enabled it to play such a role. In other words, the indicator becomes a target in its own right, and this has the effect of changing the processes it was intended to measure. The principle has been applied on both sides of the Atlantic to highlight the danger of negative consequences occurring when high-stake tests intended for measuring pupils’ achievement are used for monitoring educational standards in a managerial way (e.g., via school league tables). Such policies provide “perverse incentives” for schools to teach to the test, to the detriment of the intended learning goals.

Wiliam’s work with Black, and especially the volume Inside the Black Box (1998b), became influential as it provided evidence from 250 studies that formative assessment can significantly improve school performance. Other areas of research conducted by the ARG included systematic reviews of the impact of self- and peer-assessment on learners (Sebba et al., 2008), the reliability and validity of teacher-based assessment for summative purposes (Harlen, 2004a, 2004b), and the impact of summative assessment on students’ motivation for learning (Harlen & Deakin Crick, 2002). The ARG’s final publication (Mansell et al., 2009) endorsed the case for involving teachers in summative assessment and stressed the importance of aligning assessment and learning.

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