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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Does Classroom Assessment Work?

Recently I read a piece by Bennett (2011) questioning the true impact of formative assessment. And, while I appreciate the powerful questions he asked, there are also some significant, unstated assumptions. One of those assumptions is that there is a lack of observational evidence to inform the work of teachers and others. And, that this lack undermines the process of formative assessment.

While I can't speak to his experiences, I can speak to my experience in this regard. In my work over the past 30 years, formative assessment is considered within the larger context of classroom assessment (Davies, 2000, 2011). In Canada, for example, many policy documents have taken the stance that classroom assessment – which includes both formative and summative assessment – is actually a research undertaking. That is, classroom teachers need to triangulate their data much the way social scientists do (see, for example, Lincoln and Guba, 1984). 

In practical terms this means teachers need to collect the products students create, observe them as they engage in the processes to be learned, and have conversations with them (through words spoken, written, or recorded) to better understand the meaning students are making as they learn. As students learn, teachers collect evidence from multiple sources over time to inform their professional judgement regarding student learning.

As teachers deliberately plan to collect evidence in relation to what the curriculum states what students need to know, understand, do, and articulate, they increase the validity of their professional judgements. As teachers engage in ongoing professional learning, they come to better understand the quality expectations for students, given their age range and the subject area discipline. Powerful professional learning goes way beyond scoring of common assessments and includes moderation of collections of evidence of student learning - a process shown to increase the reliability and validity of teacher judgement (ARG, 2006).

Further, as teachers deliberately collect evidence over time in relation to curriculum outcomes, they increase the reliability of their professional judgement. They have 'proof of learning' from multiple sources over time. The 'trustworthiness' of their findings is increased (Davies et al., In press).

In this context, when teachers use an ongoing collection of evidence of student learning to inform their next teaching steps, the evidence of learning informs them. It ensures they are able to engage in 'informed assessment' and use that assessment information to inform their teaching and student learning. This is the true meaning of formative assessment.

And, as teachers involve students in the assessment process they engage in formative assessment for themselves - a process often referred to as Assessment for Learning. This photograph was shared with me recently by a teacher working with 7-year-olds in British Columbia. Notice how she is teaching students to understand quality and giving them the information they need to engage in formative assessment for themselves.

Bennett (2011) is right when he notes that educators and others can often be found reducing formative assessment to "five simple ideas" or the "eight great strategies." It is fair that this over-simplification invite criticism. It is critically important that we not limit classroom assessment in these ways.

What does work when it comes to classroom assessment?
  1. Teachers begin with the curriculum outcomes.
  2. They thoughtfully consider possible evidence of learning (products, observations of process, and conversations) of all the curricular outcomes.
  3. Teachers research quality so students and others have samples and models to illustrate the expectations for quality and proficiency.
  4. Teachers use the assessment information to inform their next teaching steps.
  5. Teachers deliberately help students use the assessment information to inform next learning steps.
  6. Teachers teach students to engage in formative assessment in support of their own learning.
  7. Teachers use the assessment information to inform their professional judgment and engage in summative assessment.
This is the classroom assessment process. Classroom assessment is a research undertaking with clear procedures and articulated methods. It is the one upon which Making Classroom Assessment Work is based which is the reason a growing number of universities are using it as a course text in professional courses leading to teaching degrees. 

After all, classroom assessment is a research process. And, as Bennett's (2011) article reminds us, it doesn't come easily. It needs to be learned and carefully implemented.


Assessment Reform Group (ARG). 2006. The role of teachers in the assessment of learning. Pamphlet produced by Assessment Systems for the Future project (ASF) http://arrts.gtcni.org.uk/gtcni/handle/2428/4617.
Bennett, R. E. (2011) Formative assessment: a critical review, Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 18:1, 5-25, DOI: 10.1080/0969594X.2010.513678
Davies, A. (2011). Making Classroom Assessment Work 3rd Ed., Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing and Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Davies, A. Herbst, S. & Parrott-Reynolds, B. (2011). Leading the Way to Assessment for Learning: A Practical Guide 2nd Ed., Courtenay, BC: Connections Publishing and Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Davies, A., Busick, K., Herbst, S. & Sherman, A. (In press). System leaders using assessment for learning as both the change and the change process: Developing theory from practice. The Curriculum Journal. http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rcjo20/current#.VEgWFeffozg
Lincoln, Y. and Guba, E. (1984). Naturalistic Inquiry. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.