Maybe Assessment for Learning isn’t the right term?

The term “assessment for learning” (educational acronym AfL) was coined by Wiliam and Black in their 1998 article “Inside the Black Box” (http://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf).  The research shook the educational community:  how teachers reacted to student learning as they were learning was incredibly important to student achievement.  The used the term AfL to describe those activities that teachers could undertake during the learning phase to help students achieve higher results.  Their research was impressive and educational scholars since have also determined that the stuff that teachers do during learning makes the biggest difference.

In an interview with Dylan Wiliam in 2012 (https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6261847) he states:

“The big mistake that Paul Black and I made was calling this stuff ‘assessment.  Because when you use the word assessment, people think about tests and exams. For me, AfL is all about better teaching.”

Given that the article Inside the Black Box was published in 1998 and we are still, in 2014, struggling with formative assessment, I wonder if we have misinterpreted because of the term name.  And I worry when I see teachers spending all of their time collecting “assessment data” because there are now three kinds of data to which we need to be accountable.

Let’s take a collective deep breath and think about the role of assessment in teaching.

You should have an idea of where your students are at before you decide exactly what they need to know.  But, your diagnostic assessment does not need to be a copy of your summative assessment.  In fact, you probably already know they don’t know all that; you haven’t taught it yet.  However, based on what you have already observed about them, and based on how they do on a carefully designed introductory activity, you will want to identify some specific gaps.  And, you will want to recognize that those gaps may not be the same for all students.  Your “diagnostic assessment” does not need to be a test, or a quiz, or something that is onerous to mark.  You do not need to hand it back to students.  You do need some way of knowing what your kids can and cannot do.  In most instances your diagnostic assessment comes from the work they have already been doing.

At the end of a learning cycle or unit, you do want to check in and see what your students can do independently based on the learning goals you have been working on.  Sometimes this summative task will really be summative; you are moving on.  You are not going to read the novel again, learn about rocks and minerals any more or study the area of parallelograms.  But sometimes this summative task will also be the diagnostic task for your next learning cycle:  you will read other novels, you will write more, you will learn more about testing the hypothesis, you will use those math concepts again.

But it is the teaching time in between the diagnostic bit and the summative bit that tends to cause all the confusion.  The term “assessment for learning” made us think that we had to have a lot of quizzes; we had to mark everything against a rubric;  we had to level (and communicate those levels) all work students did.  We amassed lots of data.  But Dylan Wiliam, himself, says that it is really just about better teaching.

So, we have our learning goals for the next bit of time, we have an idea of where our students are entering the learning and then we begin to teach.  And as we teach we are using multiple ways to figure out how kids are doing as they move towards reaching those learning goals.  We talk to them; we work with them in small groups; we give the occasional quiz or ticket out the door; we watch them; we ask questions; we encourage students to talk to each other; we make.  As our students are learning we are constantly trying to figure out how they are doing, what are the sticky bits, where are they confused.  And then we help them to get unstuck, to master something new, to make the connections.  That is “assessment for learning”.  That is just good teaching.

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