Formative assessment's dilemma

Criticism of formative assessment in schools has been touched on recently by Stephen Petty ("Like bikers, we're victims of a marketing blunder that has caused a stink", TES, November 7)) and Warwick Mansell ("AfL critics vindicated by research", TES, November 21). I agree with both.

Too many of us assume that the goals of "learning" and achieving the "required grade" converge easily. In my experience, this is rare. Often, students must "unlearn" to get the grade. One could argue that this is still learning, and in some cases the sacrifice of bad habits or poor practices that sufficed to gain success in the past may not be a bad thing. But in other cases, I have seen students sacrifice good habits, rigour and creativity to make the grade. Indeed, this is the problem for formative assessment.

There are two ways to combine formative assessment to the climate of summative tests. The first is to use exam requirements as the only arbiter of progress and quality, so whether grades are used in formative feedback or not, feedback will gear students to perform in line with exam requirements - potentially hugely destructive.

The second is to embrace true formative assessment and a diversity of progress in various directions, which will include the satisfaction of exam requirements.

I am not convinced that all students can engage with this second approach. And students' demand for their grades is so paramount that they may even be entitled to complain: "What is the point of this?"

Mike Bird, Educational researcher, Chester.

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