Accountability based on state-test results has dominated U.S. policy discussions. But around the globe, educators are beginning to pay more attention to the assessments teachers use in classrooms on a daily basis as a powerful lever for raising student achievement.
Last month, regional teams from the United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and other European nations met here to share ideas for how best to improve classroom assessments that can provide teachers and students with valuable information on how to adjust teaching and learning as it’s taking place.
“Formative assessment—the frequent, interactive assessments of student understanding and progress to identify learning needs and shape teaching—has become a prominent issue in education reform,” notes a report released earlier this year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a coalition of 30 countries that works to address common economic, social, and environmental challenges.
The study examined exemplary classroom-assessment practices in eight nations, many of which were represented at the international gathering here Sept. 12-15.
What’s in a Name?
One of the first stumbling blocks at the meeting was precisely what to call such assessments to distinguish them from the more common measures used to evaluate students or schools.
In the late 1990s, the Assessment Reform Group, which has played an influential role in bringing research evidence about classroom assessment to the attention of policymakers in the United Kingdom, coined the phrase “assessment for learning.”
“Assessment for learning” strategies can range from engineering more-effective classroom discussions and questions, to providing more-specific feedback on students’ papers, to engaging students in critiquing their own learning and that of their peers.
Classroom-assessment expert Dylan Wiliam suggests a set of strategies to promote the effective use of formative assessments to improve instruction and student learning, based on his work with teachers in England and the United states.
• Clarifying and sharing learning intentions and criteria for success with students;
• Engineering effective classroom discussions, questions, and learning tasks;
• Providing feedback that moves learners forward;
• Activating students as the owners of their own learning; and
• Activating students as instructional resources for one another, such as through peer assessment.
But all share two characteristics, according to participants at the Portland meeting: Their results are used primarily to shape and adjust what happens next in classrooms, rather than to provide a grade or mark; and they aim to encourage, not discourage, student effort.
In a 1998 review of the research literature, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam of King’s College, University of London, concluded that the achievement gains from using such assessment-for-learning strategies were “among the largest ever reported for educational interventions.”
If they could be achieved on a nationwide scale, the researchers argued, it would be equivalent to raising the mathematics achievement of an “average” country on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study into the “top five.”
Such findings, along with research suggesting that formative assessments can improve student motivation and help struggling students, in particular, has prompted many of the countries that were represented here to adopt policies designed to enhance the use of such strategies in classrooms.
Governments Buy In
In New Zealand, for instance, assessment for learning has been an integral part of the national assessment strategy since 1999. As part of a professional-development program known as “Assess to Learn,” facilitators work closely with selected primary and secondary schools over two to three years to increase teachers’ knowledge of assessment and help them use results to make changes in teaching and learning.
The national government also has sponsored a series of seminars for teachers to promote best practices, and supported the development of a CD-based computer program, Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning, that helps teachers create classroom assessments and interpret the results, with an eye toward modifying their instruction.
Similarly, in Scotland, national guidelines on assessment for 5- to 14-year-olds encourage teachers to think systematically about assessment as part of teaching and learning.
The “Assessment is for Learning” program encourages teachers to make greater use of “comments only” feedback to students and more use of student self- and peer-assessment, for example, and less use of summary judgments, such as letter grades.
In England, the government-sponsored “Assessment for Learning” program also provides professional development to support teachers’ greater use of formative assessments in shaping the instruction of individual students.
But despite growing government interest, those gathered here in Oregon said, significant barriers remain to promoting widespread use of effective assessment-for-learning strategies.
“Assessment-for-learning principles are not hard for teachers to grasp, but difficult to make work,” said Ruth Sutton, a British educator who has worked with school systems in both Canada and the United Kingdom to promote more-effective classroom assessments.
Changing teacher practices requires addressing deeply engrained habits, she said, by focusing on small steps and continual feedback, providing collegial support and accountability, recognizing success, and persevering, even while pursuing big agreed-upon goals.
“Every teacher I talk to knows everything I tell them,” agreed Mr. Wiliam, now the senior research director of the Learning and Teaching Research Center at the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, which co-sponsored the conference with the Assessment Training Institute Foundation, located in Portland. “The question is how to do it.”
Training Called Lacking
One of the primary reasons for doing classroom assessment, the conference-goers said, is to make student thinking and understanding more visible.
The idea is for teachers to know better where each student is on the continuum from novice to expert learner in a particular subject and how to adjust instruction to facilitate further learning.
But the experts here noted that few teachers are trained to interpret and act on the evidence generated from formative assessments. Many teachers, for example, have little knowledge about the developmental learning progressions in particular content areas, or about the thought processes behind students’ common misconceptions and how to address them.
“I really think this is the Achilles’ heel in the whole enterprise,” said Steven Katz, a cognitive psychologist with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.
In Australia, an independent, not-for-profit organization, the Australian Council for Educational Research, has been developing what it calls “progress maps,” or explicit statements of what it means to grow and get better within a particular content area, such as writing.
“Many, many teachers do not know what progress in an area looks like,” said Margaret S. Forster, the research director at the council.
In general, participants bemoaned the lack of training for teachers and administrators about assessment, particularly in the United States, both before and after they start their careers. An entire day of the meeting was devoted to sharing effective strategies for teacher education and training.
In the Netherlands, for example, a government-sponsored program known as Project Q-Primair supports study teams of primary school teachers who work together to improve their assessment practices.
Participants also stressed the importance of involving students in the process.
“We need for people to understand students’ role in the assessment process, because students make decisions [based on assessments] all the time, and they’re critical,” said Rick Stiggins, the president of the Assessment Training Institute Foundation.
Those decisions, he said, range from “Can I learn this, or am I just too stupid?” to “Is the learning worth the energy I must expend to attain it?”
Eclipsed by Tests?
One of the biggest concerns, especially for the American participants, was how to promote formative assessment in an era of high-stakes, test-based accountability.
“The big accountability tests are drowning out good classroom assessment,” said W. James Popham, a professor emeritus of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
One of the primary purposes of the conference was to explore the kind of policy environment that could better support assessment for learning.
“This meeting is about what we know in our bones is the right thing to do from an assessment point of view,” said Mr. Stiggins. “The only remaining, unanswered question is, will teachers be given the opportunity to learn assessment for learning?”
A version of this article appeared in the October 05, 2005 edition of Education Week as Classroom Assessments Stir Growing Global Interest