Assessment is a work in progress

Assessment is for Learning has caused a quiet revolution that is influencing ways of monitoring learners' and schools' success, Eric Young writes

The use of national assessments to monitor school performance caused some controversy at the end of the year. The problem was the validity of employing tools designed to confirm teachers' judgments of a pupil's progress.

The origins lay in Assessment 5-14, published in 1991 as guidelines setting out "the principles which should underlie school policies for the assessment of pupils' progress and attainment". Assessment was presented as the glue binding the curriculum, teaching and learning, and it was thoroughly formative in nature and intent.

However, Assessment 5-14 also introduced national tests in English and mathematics, which were summative assessments. These grew in influence as the 1990s unfolded, setting a climate of testing to measure performance in just two areas while choking in infancy a culture of assessment to support effective classroom learning across the curriculum.

By 1999, testing to monitor schools was well established but, as a national consultation on assessment demonstrated, it had won few hearts. The Scottish Executive set about tempering the climate of testing with a revived culture of classroom-based assessment through the Assessment is for Learning programme, launched in November 2001.

As well as a coherent system of assessment, the programme sought better ways to achieve change in classroom practice than the cascade approach which had been adopted in 1991.

The AifL programme identified 10 projects on assessment and every local authority nominated schools to participate in a project on formative assessment and at least one other aspect, such as personal learning plans or ICT support. Participating teachers would become the agents of change.

Their experiences and reflections would be catalysts in creating a new approach to assessment and the AifL programme itself would develop according to their insights.

A supportive community was built around this grassroots activity. The Scottish Executive, Learning and Teaching Scotland, universities, local authorities and others were involved, and national and local events and activities helped participants share ideas and practice. This was based not only on research into the relationship between assessment and learning, such as that reviewed by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in Inside the Black Box, but also on recent work in managing change and supporting organisational learning.

Implementing a national initiative based on research done with practitioners, and providing management and academic support for their investigations, represented a radical departure. It was also risky because, as it developed, the AifL programme would have to be responsive to what researchers were discovering.

They soon realised that formative assessment, not personal learning plans, occupied central ground. Indeed, personal learning plans could present difficulties: they had workload implications that distracted from the more important issue of students taking responsibility for their learning. So the programme adapted and the focus shifted to a process, conversations involving learners and those who supported them in identifying and clarifying learning priorities.

Two independent reports, on the initial formative assessment project and the AifL programme generally, have presented positive evaluations, though noted that the number of projects could hamper understanding of the programme.

Before the AiFL report was published, three main strands had been identified: assessment for learning (formative assessment), assessment as learning (personal learning planning) and assessment of learning (local moderation). All current work falls into one of these strands or in making connections between them.

In June 2004, Peter Peacock, the Education Minister, described AifL as "one of the best things in Scottish education. It has quietly gone about its business and innovated and allowed people to reflect on their practice. It is embracing simple, common-sense principles and, most importantly, allowing learners to engage and take responsibility for their learning and their future learning."

Progress will be reviewed in 2007, when all schools should have engaged in some way. Each strand of the programme raises questions to be resolved: many see formative assessment as essentially a set of teaching strategies and not a necessary stepping stone to independent learning; personal learning planning struggles to overcome early concerns; a monitoring and moderation framework with the new Scottish Survey of Achievement at its heart is still in its infancy.

Work is under way to pull the three strands together into a coherent and manageable system that both meets learners' needs and provides evidence on which judgments about teachers and schools can be based. The AifL programme has come a long way but has a distance still to travel.

Eric Young works with Learning Unlimited, providing consultancy support to the AifL programme

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