Following on from my previous post which set the context for my research into AfL in Post-16 lessons at my academy, this next series of posts will explore some of the relevant literature related to AfL and my thoughts on their concepts. The obvious place to begin is an outline of formative and summative assessment and how these relate to the oft used terms ‘assessment of learning’ and ‘assessment for learning.‘
Thoughts on formative and summative assessment
The term ‘Assessment for Learning’ (AfL) is in itself ambiguous to many within the teaching profession, often being mistaken as assessment of learning, and whilst the two terms are connected, almost inextricably so, fundamentally they are different, in terms of function, form and outcomes. Gardner (2006) notably pointed out that the phrase ‘AfL’ only actually came into regular use during the 1980s and early 1990s, coinciding not surprisingly with the influential work of Black and William (1998;a&b). It is unlikely that the process of AfL failed to exist prior to the 1980s, yet its place within the classroom and the recognition of AfL as a keystone of effective teaching had not yet occurred on a profession-wide scale. This did not really occur until the implementation of the Assessment for Learning Secondary Strategy (2002) and increased focus from Ofsted on its use in lessons. Yet Lambert and Lines (2000) argued that AfL remains a “relatively undeveloped field but one with dramatic potential impact” (Ibid;106). This is difficult to accept when one notes the wealth of literature available on the subject of AfL, albeit in its various guises, one such being the interchangeable term of formative assessment. It is more likely therefore that the education profession has failed to obtain a firm grip on the concept, and to identify specifically what is meant by the term. Indeed, Lambert and Lines (Ibid; 107) recognised this, claiming that AfL holds an “ambiguous and uncertain position in the world of education. It is not well understood…..practice is found to be patchy.” Such an assessment of the condition of AfL in education is hardly surprising considering the amorphous nature of assessment itself, and the surfeit of literature claiming to summarise the matter.
Assessment can typically be categorised as being either formative or summative in nature (Harlen; 2006). Summative assessment, in my experience at the academy, is the type with which most individuals have familiarity; the giving of grades or results, or a test given to students at the end of an academic year, the most recognisable of such being GCSEs and A Levels. (Tuttle; 2009; 3)
This type of assessment produces mostly qualitative data in ratio of pass: fail grades and focuses student attention on the percentage, mark or grade they have been given. Ultimately when undertaking summative assessment students can become fixated on achieving a certain grade, arguably neglecting the learning and thinking behind the attainment of such grades. Whilst striving to attain a specific grade can be immensely motivating, the reverse is also true for the student who does not attain their desired goal. Yet summative assessment remains the manner by which schools are judged in England, with league tables recording the percentage of 5 A*-C grades students attain at each school. (obviously at the time of writing, the imminent 1-9 GCSE grading system has not yet been introduced)
Understandably, teachers, parents and politicians place great emphasis on the results of summative assessment. Significantly though, summative assessment is flawed. (Leahy, Lyon, Thompson and Wiliam, 2005; Tuttle 2009). The information it provides is mainly used for retrospective analysis, allowing changes to the curriculum for the following academic year, but having little immediate impact on student progress or attainment. With this in mind, it is appropriate to see summative assessment as ‘assessment of learning,’ a method which whilst essential in the modern climate, is ultimately not fruitful in facilitating immediate modifications to teaching and learning. At the academy, the beginning of the academic year is spent reflecting on percentages of % A*-C grades, discussing the performance of sub-groups against targets, yet this fails to facilitate modification in teaching strategies. Instead teachers pour over data, discussing what should have been, rather than focusing on what happened in their classroom which led to those results in the first place. Admittedly, this year our INSET has been geared more towards analysing what happens in the classroom and how we teach, yet discussions in the department groups I participated in still were drawn towards data tracking, grades and communication across the school, rather than classroom experiences.
Conversely, formative assessment provides a continuous flow of information regarding student progress and attainment, and is based according to Tuttle (2009) on a process of diagnosis (of the students’ response), feedback (based on their response) and use of feedback (by the students themselves to progress further). Simply, formative assessment is “frequent, interactive assessments of student progress and understanding” and it is the purpose of this frequent interactivity which differentiates formative assessment so clearly from summative; “information gathered in the formative process is used to shape improvement, rather than serve as a summary of performances.” (OECD; 2005; 13)
In short, formative assessment is responsive to the situation at hand, offering teachers the opportunity to ‘go with the flow’ so to speak, and modify their teaching in order to provide the best learning experience possible for their students. Consequently, formative assessment is quite aptly frequently termed ‘assessment for learning’ as its application in the classroom does just that; facilitate learning.
However, Swaffield (2011) distinctly disagrees, arguing that AfL and formative assessment are separate concepts. This is supported by Higgens et al (2011) who discuss many formative assessment methods separately in the Sutton Trust Report into Pupil Premium.
Swaffield (2011) goes so far as to say that the interchangeable use of the terms has resulted in the misappropriation of AfL, arguing that “Assessment for learning is a learning process in itself, while formative assessment provides information to guide future learning.” However, I would argue that Swaffield confuses the matter, where in reality, no confusion exists. By applying preconceptions to AFL and formative assessment, as all researchers are at risk of doing, she fails to recognise that the learning process of AfL is designed to provide information for the adaptation of future teaching and learning. AfL is quite clearly formative assessment, and whilst it is recognised that defining AfL (as has been previously discussed) can be challenging, there is not sufficient argument to justify the complete separation of the two terms.
Despite Swaffields’ misgivings, these terms, summative and formative, as well as their counterparts of assessment for and assessment of learning have, since the 1990s, been used interchangeably by the education profession and Government agencies (Gardner; 2000). For the sake of continuity, the same will occur for formative assessment and AFL in my research.
Arguably the most seminal work on AfL is that of Black and Wiliam (1998b), who conducted an extensive literature review of existing research into assessment and used their findings to suggest practical strategies, in ‘Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment.’ In their treatise on classroom assessment Black and William moved into largely un-championed territory, providing a cohesive and easily-digestible summary of the types and purpose of assessment used in the classroom. Their work brought assessment into the educational spotlight in a way that it had not been before and stimulated professional dialogue regarding the nature and function of assessment in education. They argued that “this feature [formative assessment] is at the heart of effective teaching,” suggesting that for teaching to fulfil its core purpose, formative assessment must be used (Black and Wiliam 1998b; 1.) Moreover, they proposed that the classroom should not be left solely for teachers to deal with, but rather that policy makers and Senior Management teams should seek to provide support and direct help to those who essentially are ‘on the front line’ of teaching.