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Unleashing the Promise of Assessment for Learning

Many teachers say that they do “assessment for learning” (AfL), but often their assessment practice does not really reflect the intentions and principles that make AfL powerful. Teachers who understand the “spirit” as well as the “letter” of AfL are continually building their expertise so that they can carefully apply their professional knowledge on a moment-by-moment basis. They are routinely engaged in seeking, reflecting upon, and responding to information from dialogue, demonstration, and observation, with ideas and feedback that are immediate and directed at learning, in real time. These teachers need policy support, organizational structures, and professional development, so that they can use this knowledge and its application to enhance learning for all students.

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Since the Assessment Reform Group in England coined the term Assessment for Learning (AfL) in 1998, it has become ubiquitous in educational systems around the world. A quick Google search yields over 11 million hits; countless books have been written about it; and it has become a stalwart of assessment policy statements and professional development sessions. Virtually every Canadian province and territory has a policy directive and/or has developed resources and offered professional development that supports AfL. For example, Ontario’s The Growing Success policy document (2010) explicitly notes its importance by actively encouraging teachers to “provide students with descriptive feedback and coaching for improvement.”[1] Similarly, British Columbia’s Accountability Framework “promotes evidence-based, data-driven decision making with a focus on AfL.[2] Some jurisdictions such as Saskatchewan have gone so far as to develop AfL units.[3] Collectively, a broad scan of the Canadian landscape suggests a growing recognition of the central importance of policies that support AfL practices in 21st century schools.

The Promise of Assessment for Learning

The idea of AfL arose out of a 1998 landmark research paper by Black and Wiliam in which they synthesized over 250 studies linking assessment and learning and found that the intentional use of assessment in the classroom to promote learning improved student achievement.[4] This meta-analysis supported previous research showing that classroom assessment had both short- and long-term effects on learning.[5]

 In the short term, it showed that classroom assessment could:

  • focus attention on important aspects of the subject;
  • give students opportunities to practice skills and consolidate learning;
  • guide further instructional or learning activities.

In the medium and long term, assessment held the possibility of:

  • influencing students’ motivation as learners and their perceptions of their capabilities;
  • communicating and reinforcing teaching goals, including performance criteria and desired standards of performance;
  • influencing students’ choice of and development of learning strategies, skills, and study patterns;
  • influencing students’ subsequent choice of courses, activities, and careers.

Since that time, it has become obvious that assessment can be a powerful catalyst for learning. Over and over again, research studies have demonstrated that, if learning is the goal, assessment for learning is very powerful.

Recent reviews of more than 4,000 research investigations show clearly that when [formative assessment] is well implemented in the classroom, it can essentially double the speed of student learning…it is clear that the process works, it can produce whopping gains in students’ achievement, and it is sufficiently robust so that different teachers can use it in diverse ways, yet still get great results with their students.[6]

From Promise to Reality (or not)

We have all spent much of our professional lives thinking about and studying classroom assessment – the kind of assessment that is carried out by teachers every day. In recent years, we have had the pleasure and privilege of participating in international invitational assessment seminars focused on AfL. This group is made up of researchers, policymakers, professional development providers, and educational leaders from Australia, Canada, continental Europe, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. One of the recurring themes for the group is the same issue that we have been pondering in our own research. We know that formative assessment, done well, is very powerful. But we find repeatedly that AfL is not evident or is only superficial in most classrooms. So, why, after several decades of evidence, is it not a fundamental part of classrooms in Canada and around the world?

We know that formative assessment, done well, is very powerful…So, why, after several decades of evidence, is it not a fundamental part of classrooms in Canada and around the world?

The Learning How to Learn (LHTL) Project in England has provided the international seminar group with a major source of evidence and fuelled our deliberations.[7] In its work, the LHTL team found that teachers implementing AfL in their classrooms often reflected what they called the “letter” of formative assessment, focusing on the surface techniques, rather than the “spirit”, based on a deep understanding of the principles underlying the practices. Only about 20 percent of the teachers in their LHTL study were using formative assessment in ways that were designed to help students develop as learners.[8]

Through our ongoing conversations and research, we have identified several key issues that can interfere with AfL fulfilling its promise: misunderstanding of what AfL means and requires; superficial professional learning; and competing policy expectations.[9] Here, we focus on the first issue, with reference to the importance of the others in creating a positive context for teacher learning.

What Is Unique About AfL?

Although many teachers would say that they do “assessment for learning” there is considerable evidence that their assessment practice does not really reflect the intentions and principles that make AfL powerful. At the international assessment seminars, we have talked about how the ways in which the words have been interpreted and translated into practice reveal both a misunderstanding of the principles and a distortion of the practices that the original ideals sought to promote. For example, “deciding where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there”, has sometimes been (mis)interpreted as an exhortation to test students frequently, using prescribed national/state scales, in order to fix their failings and target the next level. In this scenario, scores – which are intended to be indicators of, or proxies for, learning – become the goals themselves. Real and sustained learning is sacrificed to performance on a test. In contrast, the primary aim of AfL is to contribute to learning itself. Although true learning will manifest itself in performance, the converse does not hold. Performance on a test does not necessarily mean that learning has occurred. Learners can be taught how to score well on tests without much underlying learning.

In the LHTL project, the researchers found many teachers who were attempting to engage in AfL by adding strategies to their existing assessment repertoire without shifting the purpose towards enhanced learning. This finding echoed a finding from a Canadian study in which we used the metaphor of creating an audio recording to describe the different ways in which teachers incorporate ideas of assessment for learning into their practices.[10] For some teachers, the process of incorporating new assessment strategies was like laying new sound tracks onto an existing audiotape. Their original approach to teaching and assessment remained intact, but some additional material was superimposed upon it. The other end of the spectrum was like working with a sophisticated digitized recording system. This was rare in our study. These teachers had a sense of the components of the work and the mood they wanted to create, but operated using an open and changeable approach, skipping to anywhere in the work, adding little flourishes, and maneuvering all the bits to keep the whole production flowing. The teachers who used this digital approach were able not only to use a variety of techniques every day but also to move beyond them to circumnavigate what other teachers had experienced as obstacles. The third and most prevalent production style was a mixed one – some of it audiotape, some digitized – where teachers played with the digitized approach but kept coming back to the original tape. The transitions back and forth weren’t always smooth, and these teachers frequently expressed frustration and uncertainty about their practice.

As a result of common misunderstandings about how AfL works, teachers often engage in practical implementation based on limited understanding and superficial adoption of the ideas.[11] Over and over, teachers incorporate the techniques associated with AfL, including peer and self-assessment and routine assessments throughout a course to track students’ progress. But just adding these bits is not AfL. Certainly the tools or techniques are useful, but teachers implementing the “letter” of AfL are in the early stages of understanding and embedding the concept into their practice; they still depend on rules and embed the new ideas as add-ons.

Becoming more proficient means developing a deep understanding of the underlying theory and learning to use the ideas to solve problems and make ongoing adaptations automatically. Teachers with this “spirit” of assessment for learning do not just add strategies to their existing assessment repertoire; they internalize the underlying principles, have a strong belief in the importance of promoting student autonomy, articulate a clear conviction that they are responsible for ensuring that this takes place, and take this empowering philosophy into the classroom and communicate it to students.[12] The LHTL project demonstrated that:

although advice on specific techniques is useful in the short term, longer-term development and sustainability depends on re-evaluating beliefs about learning, reviewing the way learning activities are structured, and rethinking classroom roles and relationships.[13]

AfL is a way of thinking and a set of beliefs about the nature of learning and the rhythm of interactions in classrooms. Its primary aim is to contribute to learning by identifying aspects of learning as it develops, using both informal and formal processes, so that learning itself can be enhanced. This focuses directly on the learner’s capabilities as they are developing.

AfL means seeking out, analyzing, and reflecting on information from students themselves, from teachers, and from the learner’s peers as it is expressed in dialogue, learner responses to tasks and questions, and observation. AfL is part of everyday teaching, in everyday classrooms. A great deal of it occurs in real time, but some of it is derived through more formal assessment events or episodes. What is distinctive about it is not the form of the information or the circumstances in which it is generated, but the positive effect it has for the learner. And therein lies the dilemma: How to move from techniques and activities to genuine new learning by teachers?

Moving from the “Letter” to the “Spirit”

AfL depends on the knowledge and expertise of teachers – their knowledge of students, of unlocking students’ thinking, of feedback, of curriculum, of teaching, of pedagogical content knowledge, and of learning theory. Why? Because AfL is not a tool; it is a shift in thinking about what matters in schools. It moves the focus from categorizing students to learning for students. And it often involves conceptual change on the part of teachers as they rethink what assessment is for and how to do it.

Becoming an expert in AfL is hard work, as teachers come to understand the theory behind it and examine how these ideas are both similar to and different from their current beliefs and practices.  It requires teachers to engage in high quality professional learning that helps them explicate their preconceptions about assessment and internalize an approach to assessment – and even to learning – that may run counter to current expectations in their schools.

This kind of change will not happen without policy expectations that honour the essential role of teachers’ expertise and opportunities for serious job-embedded professional learning.

Teachers with the “spirit” of AfL are continually building their expertise so that they are in a position to carefully and intentionally apply their professional knowledge on a moment-by-moment basis.  They, and their students, are routinely engaged in seeking, reflecting upon, and responding to information from dialogue, demonstration, and observation, with ideas and feedback that are immediate and directed at learning, in real time. They need policy support, organizational structures, and professional learning that gives them deep engagement with the new ideas associated with AfL, so that they can use this knowledge and its application in practice to enhance learning for all students.

EN BREF - Beaucoup d’enseignantes et d’enseignants affirment effectuer une « évaluation au service de l’apprentissage », mais souvent, leurs pratiques ne reflètent pas les intentions et les principes qui rendent ce type d’évaluation efficace. Le personnel enseignant qui comprend l’« esprit » et la « lettre » de l’évaluation au service de l’apprentissage rehausse constamment ses compétences afin de mieux utiliser ses connaissances professionnelles à tous les instants. Les renseignements obtenus de dialogues, de démonstrations et de l’observation stimulent sans cesse leurs réflexions et leurs réactions, engendrant des idées et une rétroaction immédiates qui sont axées sur l’apprentissage, en temps réel. Ces enseignantes et ces enseignants ont besoin de politiques claires, de structures organisationnelles et de perfectionnement professionnel afin que ces connaissances et leurs applications améliore l’apprentissage de tous les élèves.

[1] www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/growSuccess.pdf, 28. 

[2] See www.bced.gov.bc.ca/policy/policies/accountability_framework.htm

[3] See www.education.gov.sk.ca/Assessment-for-Learning

[4] P. Black and D. Wiliam, “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment,” Phi Delta Kappan 80, no. 2 (1998).

[5] T. Crooks, “The Impact of Classroom Evaluation Practices on Students,” Review of Educational Research 58, no. 4 (1998): 438-481.

[6] J. Popham, “Formative Assessment – A Process, Not a Test,” Education Week, February 2011.


[7] M. James, Learning How To Learn – in Classrooms, Schools and Networks (Teaching and Learning Research Brief. Teaching and Learning Research Programme., 2006). Downloaded March 20, 2010 from www.tlrp.org

[8] M. James and D. Pedder, “Beyond Method: Assessment and Learning Practices and Values,” The Curriculum Journal 17 (2006): 109-138.

[9] L. Volante, “Assessment of, for, and as Learning Within Schools: Implications for Transforming Classroom Practice,” Action in Teacher Education 31, no. 4 (2010): 66-75.

[10] L. Earl and S. Katz, “Changing Classroom Assessment: Teachers’ Struggles,” in The Sharp Edge of Educational Change, eds. N. Bascia, and A. Hargreaves (London: Falmer Press, 2003).

[11] P. Black, “Formative Assessment: Promises or Problems?” Unpublished paper, 2007. Downloaded March 14, 2010. www.mantleoftheexpert.com/studying/articles/Paul%20Black2007.pdf

[12] James and Pedder.

[13] M. James, and A. Pollard, TLRP's Ten Principles for Effective Pedagogy:  Rationale, Development, Evidence, Argument and Impact (London: Research Papers in Education, 2011 in press).