Two British researchers published a small booklet in 1998 that argued one of the best ways to improve learning was to focus on the day-to-day assessments that teachers use in their classrooms to plan their instruction and give feedback to pupils.
Based on a review of more than 250 research articles, Inside theBlackBox sold more than 40,000 copies. The pamphlet contributed to the British government’s embrace of “assessment for learning” as a strategy for improving schools. And it led the twosome—Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, then at King’s College, University of London—to work with 48 teachers in six schools on how to translate their findings into practice.
The results of that two-year project will be published this month in a book, Assessment for Learning: Putting It Into Practice, by Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.
Now, Mr. Wiliam has crossed the ocean to see if the same ideas can be useful to teachers in the United States. In September, he joined the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service as the director of its new Learning and Teaching Research Center.
The hope, Mr. Wiliam said, is to capitalize on the nonprofit company’s expertise in testing, but to focus “much more on assessment to support instruction rather than to simply measure its results.”
Such “formative” assessments range from the questions teachers ask during class to how they mark written assignments. They provide feedback to students and teachers that is then used to adjust instruction.
In other words, they answer teachers’ frequently asked question: What should I do next?
“The idea is that teachers are constantly listening to what students are saying,” Mr. Wiliam said. “My colleague Christine Harrison [a co-author of the book] once said, ‘What we’ve been doing is making the students’ voices louder and the teachers’ hearing better.’”
A False Choice
For teachers, one of the most reassuring findings is that a focus on “assessment for learning” can actually improve test results. The authors found that strengthening the practice of formative assessment produced substantial learning gains on national tests in Britain equivalent to about 60 points out of a possible score of 1600 on the SAT college-entrance exam, which the ETS produces.
“Teachers have always said to me, ‘I’d love to teach in this way, but I have to improve my test scores,’” Mr. Wiliam said. “That culture is very strong in Britain. What we showed is that you didn’t have to choose.”
Mr. Wiliam, a former high school science, math, and English teacher in inner-city London, joined King’s College in 1984, where, as a professor of educational assessment, he trained teachers and worked on a number of assessment projects. He eventually became dean of the school of education and, then, assistant provost of the college.
Although the book’s primary audience is teachers, it’s not meant to be a recipe book. Rather, the authors contend, translating broad principles from research into classroom practice is a “nontrivial intellectual task” that actually involves the formulation of new knowledge.
That view was reflected in their work with English, mathematics, and science teachers of 11- to 15-year olds in Medway and Oxfordshire, England, between January 1999 and the summer of 2001. The researchers encouraged the teachers to experiment with the strategies and tactics suggested by the research, such as rich questioning, marking papers without giving grades, sharing their criteria for judging work with students, and using more peer- and self-assessment by youngsters.
But each teacher drew up, and later refined, his or her own action plan, specifying which aspects of teaching practice he or she wanted to improve.
The book describes in detail the concrete activities that teachers undertook as they tried out new ideas in their classrooms, the changes they saw in student learning, and how their relationships with students and their own thinking about instruction changed. It also includes advice for principals and other school administrators on how they might support such work more broadly.
Many teachers, for example, experimented with increasing the waiting time for students to answer a question, before jumping in, so that more children could take part in discussions. The teachers moved away from a reliance on limited factual questions to the use of “big” or “open-ended” ones that gave them greater insights into students’ understandings. And they worked to provide clearer feedback to students about what they had achieved, and what they needed to work on next, in their written assignments. The teachers also set aside more time in class for students to revise their work based on that feedback.
Over time, teachers also used more peer- and self-assessment by students. One simple and effective idea was for students to use “traffic light” icons, labeling their work green, yellow, or red, based on whether they thought they had good, partial, or little understanding of a topic.
While Mr. Wiliam is convinced similar practices can be useful in U.S. schools, he acknowledged that the contexts differ, right down to the language.
For example, some states now have what they call “formative assessments” that are given every few months to predict how students will perform on end-of-the-year tests. While that’s useful at the system level, Mr. Wiliam said, “it doesn’t help the teachers do anything about how to make learning better right now.”
“I see the major need to broaden the focus,” he said, “and, in particular, to focus on the inside of the classroom,” and on much shorter feedback cycles for students.
The ETS center is talking with teachers, principals, superintendents, and others about working in at least three or four districts.
“The idea is that we start slowly and create expertise within districts that becomes self-generating,” Mr. Wiliam explained, based on a model that worked well in England.
There’s already a toehold in the United States. With funding from the National Science Foundation, Stanford University researchers spent three years working with 25 middle school science teachers in the San Francisco Bay area to improve formative assessment.
“We were working concurrently with Dylan’s group in London,” said Janet E. Coffey, now an assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland College Park. “They were a little ahead of us, so we were able to use some of their materials and learn a lot from their lessons, and share it with our teachers.”
“I think it’s very, very exciting” that Mr. Wiliam has moved to the United States, she added. “Especially being at an institution like ETS, he can really have an influence on both the policy level as well as the level of practice.”