School & District Management

British Group Nudges Tests Toward Classroom Assessment

By Lynn Olson — March 20, 2002 7 min read
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In 1988, the United Kingdom embarked upon a series of education policy changes that paralleled trends in the United States: the development of a national curriculum, or standards; tests linked to those standards; parental choice of schools; and the use of test scores to evaluate schools and districts.

“It was quite evident that assessments were going to be critical and become much more powerful and high-stakes than they had been in Britain,” said Mary James, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge in England. “We saw ourselves following the U.S. model, in some sense.”

Determined that policymakers’ decisions should be informed by research, the British Educational Research Association formed a series of working groups to address aspects of the law, including a task force on assessment.

Since then, the Assessment Reform Group, as it is now known, has made a concerted effort to balance the focus on large-scale, external testing with efforts to improve the quality of classroom assessments that inform teaching and learning on a daily basis.

“Just measuring children and scoring them doesn’t necessarily give them any indication of how they might actually improve their achievement,” said Ms. James, who is a member of the group. “So we wanted to make this distinction between summative and formative assessment, which we gradually came to call ‘assessment of learning’ and ‘assessment for learning,’ the latter being absolutely critical if we want to raise standards.”

In a world where researchers and policymakers often talk past each other like ships passing in the night, the work of the Assessment Reform Group has been surprisingly well received. As such, it could offer a model for educators in the United States.

“In my view, the ARG has been profoundly influential in promoting, influencing, and informing the debate on assessment in the U.K.,” asserted Sheila Dainton, an education policy adviser for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, a professional association and trade union representing more than 150,000 members, a majority of them teachers in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

“It is an excellent example of a bottom- up pressure group that has worked with consistency and integrity over the years,” she added. “Policymakers are beginning to realize that summative testing, mainly undertaken for purposes of accountability, is not the best way to promote and sustain high-quality learning.”

‘Inside the Black Box’

It’s probably safe to say that few of the teachers, administrators, and policymakers influenced by the work of the Assessment Reform Group have actually heard of the organization, or waded through the 38,000-word research synthesis that has informed so much of its work.

Supported with a grant from the Nuffield Foundation, in 1996 the group commissioned researchers Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of King’s College London school of education to conduct an extensive review of the literature on formative assessment.

After sifting through hundreds of journals, articles, and book chapters, the authors concluded that, when carried out effectively, informal classroom assessment that provides constructive feedback to students is “at the heart of effective teaching.”

Whether they were looking at studies of 5-year-olds or university undergraduates, across different school subjects or countries, they found that practices that strengthened the quality of formative assessments produced “significant, and often substantial, learning gains,” particularly for low-achieving students.

What the group did next with those findings was probably the chief reason for its success.

Knowing that few policymakers read esoteric education journals, the group decided to write a short, summary pamphlet, “Inside the Black Box,” which could be read in 15 minutes in fairly straightforward prose.

The pamphlet was released at a press conference in London in 1998 and followed up by a conference that drew together policymakers, practitioners, and academicians from across the United Kingdom to discuss its implications. A version also appeared in the United States, in the October 1998 issue of Phi Delta Kappan.

In 1999, the group followed up with another short publication, “Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box,” which included specific steps the government could take to improve classroom assessments.

To back up its point, the group cited abundant evidence from the Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED), which conducts inspections of schools in the United Kingdom, that “the use of assessment to help pupils learn is one of the weakest aspects of practice in classrooms across the U.K.”

The group even went so far as to share a draft of the pamphlet with key people within the various government agencies associated with education.

“I think that was a sensible thing to do because they felt they were taken along with the process, rather than being criticized,” Ms. James said.

Although the group never suggested the government abandon its focus on assessment for grading and accountability purposes, it urged a shift in emphasis to encourage better classroom assessment as well.

“Our concerns really were to use assessments as positively as possible for learning,” said Wynne Harlen, the current chairwoman of the group and a visiting professor of education at the University of Bristol in England.

“I would say that one of the keys to ARG’s impact is the way they have successfully made key research findings and statements about assessment accessible to a wide audience,” suggested Sue Swaffield, a professor of education at the University of Cambridge and the past president of the Association of Advisers and Inspectors of Assessments, which represents the testing experts in many local education agencies.

More recently, the group published an even shorter leaflet spelling out 10 research- based principles for assessment that should guide classroom practice.

“It’s early days,” noted Ms. Harlen. But, she added, “there’s now a willingness to get practice in formative assessment, or what we call assessment for learning, into schools.”

One other element of the group’s success, she willingly acknowledges, is a change in the national government. Since 1997, under Prime Minister Tony Blair of the Labor Party, the government has promoted syntheses of high-quality research. “That made an awful lot of difference,” she said, “because the new government wants to take notice of educational research, whereas the previous government had ravaged it.”

Baby Steps

Of course, the impact of the Assessment Reform Group should not be overstated. As Tony Gallagher, a professor of education at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, pointed out, “The government is still pretty much wedded to the use of assessment in a slightly tougher way for outcome purposes, summative purposes.”

“They’re quite an influential group in terms of all of the debates and discussions on assessment,” he said of the ARG, “but the government continues to do what it does.”

Nonetheless, the group’s efforts have influenced a number of government policies. For example, the government is currently rolling out its strategy for improving education for students at ages 11 to 14. As part of the materials it is producing on teaching and learning, the government has produced several training modules and videos on assessment for learning. Meanwhile, OFSTED has included an emphasis on formative assessments as part of its framework for inspecting schools.

Less progress has been made on the teacher-training front. New standards for teacher education “make mention of these ideas,” said Ms. James. “Unfortunately, I think they embed them in a lot of other stuff, which is managerial.”

For the past two years, the national Department of Education and Skills also has sponsored regular meetings among a group of researchers, teachers, local education agencies, and government authorities to coordinate developments in assessment for learning.

But the real test could come in the aftermath of March 5, when the group met in Bristol, England, to unveil its latest research synthesis on the effects of summative and high-stakes testing on students’ motivation to learn. The conclusions of that research could challenge the government’s emphasis on national curriculum tests much more directly.

“We’re very well aware that while high-stakes testing goes on, that is bound to take priority in teachers’ concerns,” said Ms. Harlen. “We’re hoping that by revealing what’s happening, and giving hard data on what’s happening, the politicians and the policymakers will see that something has got to be changed.”

Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 20, 2002 edition of Education Week as British Group Nudges Tests Toward Classroom Assessment


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