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!


Formative-Assessment Process

There’s so much confusion around regarding formative assessment processes. here in India the water has been muddied by the CBSE CCE process which purports to bring formative assessment to secondary education.

However, when you read these two pieces you begin to get a realisation of just how far off the right direction things have gone. Most of what is happening continues to be summative assessment masquerading under a different name. A test is a test, whatever you call it! And, the evidence is clear – tests contribute very little to learning.

So, teachers need extensive training to understand and to be able to build formative-assessment processes in to their teaching in sophisticated and creative ways that make it a fundamental part of how the children learn.

ASCD Edge – Preparing Kids for 1982
(has some links to some excellent resources)
Education Week – Formative-Assessment Process

So Much Nonsense

Grrr, I can feel a rant coming on. The reason …… there’s so much rubbish (nice, polite word) that goes around in education, it’s no wonder that parents and students get confused, then skeptical, then downright cynical!

If you rename a spelling test as ‘dictation’, does it stop being a spelling test? If you call a one-hour written paper a ‘quiz’ instead of an exam, a) does that excuse the fact that it tests nothing but memory, and b) does that mean you’re ‘progressive’ and children have no reason to get competitive or feel stress?

The latest nonsense comes in relation to formative assessment, with the great new CCE introduced to take all the burden out and solve all the problems of education – over night.

Here’s a section from a newspaper article from yesterday:

“Under the CCE, the syllabus has been divided in to two terms – each having two formative assessments(FA) and one summative assessment (SA). The two FAs carry 10% weightage each, while SA carries 20% weightage in the first term and 40% weightage in the final term.”

What utter nonsense. If something ‘ends’ or culminates in marks or percentages it is not formative in nature.

To understand better, see the following article from Utopia. This not only squashes this foolish misunderstanding of what formative assessment is not, but also provides lots of examples of how teachers can carry out effective FA in their classrooms (without any mention of finishing up with marks or final data.

Edutopia Article

So, let’s cut the nonsense and start by recogfnising FA for what it really is. Then, we might begin to see it in our classrooms and be able to appreciate its value.

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