How To Mess Up A Good Thing

Formative assessment has been a vitally important element in education, as educators seek to have ways to move away from the old fashioned models based endlessly on the use of standardised examinations to provide data and evidence of student learning. Incidentally, on that, I read yesterday that in Japan, children don’t take any kind of full summative assessment until the age of 10.

Formative assessment goes by many names, the most common other name being assessment for learning (AfL) to differentiate it from assessment of learning (AoL) AoL can be compared to cracking eggs open on a regular basis to find out how the chicks are developing. When we consider that the man who invented standardised tests (especially of the multiple choice variety) actually came out after a year or two to say that they were too crude and unsophisticated to use to measure school pupils’ knowledge, skills or academic performance (and was promptly sacked for his honesty!) we have to say that if we are to have assessment it has to be something a great deal more advanced.

AfL sets out to pay more attention to the future, rather than looking solely backwards like summative testing. It includes a variety of techniques and methods to gather clues as to how well a student is progressing in some learning and to have clarity about where they need to go next to best build on to their existing knowledge, skills and competence. Also, and perhaps most critically, AfL is not just predicated on the need to produce a set of data for the teacher, but aims to have the learner themselves reflect on their learning, the journey they have taken up to the point in time and where they are going next – including what they will need to do to get there. It

In November 2008 I was very fortunate to attend a presentation in Mumbai, India arranged by Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). The keynote speaker was professor Sue Swaffield of Cambridge University, a leading proponent of AfL and researcher in educational leadership, assessment and school improvement. She presented powerful research evidence about the ways in which grades and marks demotivate all but the strongest of academic achievers, lead to negative approaches to learning from children and teachers and advocating strongly for stronger training of teachers in the techniques and methods of AfL.

So, I was very interested recently to come across this article written by professor Swaffield nearly a year later that really highlights how good ideas can get mangled and abused in the education domain. The needs of those in power for data, control and top down dictating of how things are done is the very opposite of what we see throughout the world in the most dynamic, creative learning organisations.

The Misrepresentation of Assessment For Learning
(To download the document as a PDF you will need to have Adobe reader or some similar programme loaded)

I particularly loved the section on the second page of the paper that talks of the origins of the word ‘assessment’ in latin, deriving from a word that means “sitting beside”. Tell that to the exam invigilators – they would call that cheating!

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