Since the legislation of No Child Left Behind, assessments in most classrooms are dominated by the ones that are summative in nature. Summative assessments are those that assess if learning occurred and are used to sort and rank students. They are also used to collect individual grades and to evaluate programs, curricula and schools. These assessments are also referred to as assessments of learning (AOL) (Harlen & James, 1997). These assessments are necessary and provide standardized information that help administrators, school board members, legislators and even community members make important decisions from how many teachers to hire for a grade level to whether or not to open a business in a certain school locality. This article will focus on a different yet equally important kind of assessment, assessment for learning (AFL).
Combining assessments of learning, which determine if learning occurred by collecting individual grades and ranking students, with assessments for learning that identify the gap between the student’s point of understanding and the curriculum expectations, improves both learning and teaching.
AFL can be easily recognized and defined. Its primary intent is to enhance and improve both teaching and learning (Cowie & Bell, 1999). This assessment is always completed and carried out by the classroom teacher and is also referred to as formative assessment, dynamic assessment, self regulation and cognitive acceleration (Black & Wiliam, 2009). An easy way to recognize the difference between AOL and AFL is to ask the simple question, “Is this assessment designed for the sole purpose of increasing student learning?” If yes, then it is AFL. If for any other reason, then it is AOL.
It is important to note that specific literature reviews have been conducted related to the effects of formative assessment. These reviews include the seminal work of Black and Wiliam (1998) and conclude that even though there is limited evidence that directly connects this kind of data-driven decision making to improved educational outcomes, it would be careless to assume that the information provided does not lead us in the right direction through the use of these promising practices (Dunn & Mulvenon, 2009).
AFL uncovers what the student knows and understands related to the content and identifies the gap between the student’s point of understanding and the curriculum expectations. We can think of the keys to assessment for learning as having a clear vision of what is expected, providing corrective and confirming feedback, and closing the gap between where a student is currently and where he is expected to be (see Figure 1).
What are the keys to assessment for learning?
Key 1 – Clear vision and learning targets
For a student, this serves as a road map to where he is going in relationship to the content. Instructional models are provided with strong and weak examples.
Key 2 – Corrective and confirming feedback
This type of feedback helps students become better at goal setting and self assessment.
Key 3 – Closing the gap
Lessons are designed to focus on one area of growth at a time. Teachers teach students to be focused on their revisions. Teachers engage students in self-reflection. Opportunities are given for students to share their learning with others.
(Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis & Chappuis, 2006)
The critical piece with this form of assessment is the student’s ability, along with the teacher’s, to recognize the gap and then identify steps and learning goals that will begin to close it. The skilled teacher is able to change the conditions around instruction, where necessary, to allow for deeper learning (Shepard, 2009). Additionally, AFL happens in the midst of the learning process. These assessments are both formal and informal and help diagnose specific student needs and provide confirming and corrective feedback. This kind of feedback helps students become clear as to their place in the learning process and how to be involved in closing the gap. Each assessment should help students take steps toward achievement and to see a clear picture of how to improve. With AFL, the grading piece is of less importance since it is not about accountability; it is more about learning (Stiggins et al., 2006).
In a writing classroom, the following can serve as examples of AOL and AFL.
There are two third-grade classrooms in Merrymont Elementary school. Both teachers have similar experience levels as far as teaching, but approach teaching and learning in very different ways. The assignment in both classrooms is to write about a very exciting time in your life. Both teachers have been teaching their students to use descriptive language in their writing. Ms. AOL gives the assignment and reminds the students to use a lot of descriptive language in their paper. Later that evening, she grades her students’ papers assigning each one a letter grade from A-F. She provides some comments such as, “Good job,” and “Keep trying.” Ms. AFL, on the other hand, provides a rubric for using descriptive language in their writing and goes over it with the students. She models a sentence or two with the class and engages them in helping her evaluate her sentences with the rubric. She gives them time to practice writing a few model sentences in trios and allows them to evaluate their own examples together with the rubric. Later, she explains to them that they will be evaluating their own writing based on the rubric before handing it in. She will then schedule a writing conference with each student to provide corrective and confirming feedback.
When the papers are returned and go home in their backpacks for parents, imagine the conversation that might take place between parent and child. Let’s further imagine that a student from Ms. AOL’s class has a C on her paper about the exciting event. Her parent asks a few questions about the assignment related to what the child could do to improve. The child replies, “I didn’t use enough descriptive language,” or “I must be a bad writer.” As you can imagine, the parent is more than likely at a loss for how to help the child reach the target and the child is at a loss for what the target is. She knows that she needs to improve but doesn’t know how.
Now think about the same scenario with a student from Ms. AFL’s class. He brings his paper home along with a rubric. There is no grade on the paper, simply a record of clear targets that indicate current performance related to those targets. When this parent asks his child about the assignment, the child is able to say that he is using some descriptive language like adjectives, but needs to try to include figurative language. The student explains what figurative language is and recognizes it in books, but continues to confuse its use in his own writing. The parent suggests playing some games using figurative language while riding in the car to activities and school. He also reinforces it in their nightly story time.
Which teacher has the keys to open the door to deeper understanding and knowledge? The obvious answer is Ms. AFL. AFL strategies are present throughout this example from the rubric with clear targets to the self assessment at the end. Teachers spend the majority of their time assessing in the classroom for various reasons. Why not make it for learning?
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Accountability, 21(1), 5-31. doi: 10.1007/s11092-008-9068-5.
Black, P., Harrison, C., Lee, C., Marshall, B., & Wiliam, D. (2004). Working inside the black box: Assessment for learning in the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan, 86(1), 9-21.
Cowie, B., & Bell, B. (1999). A model of formative assessment in science education. Assessment in Education, 6(1), 101-116.
Dunn, K., & Mulvenon, S. (2009). A critical review of research on formative assessment: The limited scientific evidence of the impact of formative assessment in education. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 14(7), 1-11.
Harlen, W., & James, M. (1997). Assessment and learning: Differences and relationships between formative and summative assessment. Assessment in Education, 4(3), 365-379.
Shepard, L. (2009). Commentary: Evaluating the validity of formative and interim assessment. Educational Measurement, 28(3), 32-37.
Stiggins, R., Arter, J., Chappuis, J., & Chappuis, S. (2006). Classroom assessment for learning. Portland, OR: Educational Testing Service.