It was not a particularly memorable day as days go, but the impact of our decision that afternoon had far-reaching and hugely positive consequences. It was the day in 1997 that my colleagues and I in the Assessment Reform Group (ARG) made the decision to commission Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam to review existing research on formative assessment. We had been trying for almost 10 years to stem the growing tendency across the UK to use external tests for creating school league tables, target setting and appraising teachers, all of which more or less ignored the huge potential of classroom assessment to support learning. However, the ‘accountability’ juggernaut was not for turning, even though the Blair dynasty’s clarion call of “Education! Education! Education!” had not yet begun to ring hollow. It was the day we decided to up the ante and make it our target to resurrect assessment by teachers, not to abandon testing, but to refocus assessment activities where they should be, on pupil learning.
The King’s College pair had been long-term advocates of formative assessment and among the best researchers in the international assessment field. We knew the Nuffield-funded commission would be in good hands, but the 10 years since have demonstrated that their work was to spark a sea-change in thinking about assessment. Two publications did it: the scholarly review itself – all 70+ pages of it – and a little pamphlet: Inside the Black Box. With these Paul and Dylan lit the blue touch paper and we followed suit by stoking the fire. We set out the key features of using assessment to support learning and promoted the concept and processes of Assessment for Learning (AfL), as it became widely known. The power of AfL to improve pupil learning and raise standards was plain for all to see, and soon everyone was sitting up and taking notice.
And why? The reasons are probably legion, but at the heart of them is the fact that teachers instinctively knew that assessment should not be a separate process that is simply ‘done to’ students. It should be fundamentally integrated with learning and teaching. Once teachers reflected on the AfL philosophy and tried out the key elements (including sharing learning intentions, effective questioning and peer assessment), they quickly took ownership of it. As David Hargreaves put it in 2005: “Assessment for learning is spreading rapidly, in part because … teachers find that it works – the scientific evidence and the practice evidence are aligned and mutually supportive”.
But that is only part of the story. How did teachers find out about AfL? How did they begin to appreciate that those many, short interactions with pupils in every lesson had so much potential to improve learning? Certainly the work of the ARG helped with research outputs and projects such as Beyond the Black Box, Assessment for Learning: Ten Principles, Testing, Motivation and Learning, and Assessment Systems of the Future. Excellent communicators of the ‘message’, such as Ruth Sutton, Shirley Clarke and our own Brian Yeats, Sharon Cousins and Sandra Hayes, among others too numerous to mention, also inspired many teacher gatherings.
Assessment for Learning A Practical Guide
Arguably, however, just as this practical guide illustrates, it was agencies such as CCEA and the five Education and Library Boards (ELBs) that really made it happen through investing time, funds and the expertise of the aforementioned colleagues. Much of the groundwork took place in the early 2000s before the large-scale AfL Action Research Project got underway in 2004, with second and third expansion phases formally lasting until 2007. However, the project very much lives on in the various schools involved and at a systems level in all schools through AfL’s comprehensive endorsement in the Northern Ireland Curriculum. In particular, it made substantial contributions to contemporary activities such as Ruth Leitch’s project Consulting Pupils on the...
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