But academics who coined the term fear their concept has been officially hijacked to promote a different approach
Every school in England is to have a senior teacher trained in "assessment for learning" within the next two years under plans to make it a central part of classroom practice to improve pupil achievement.
But the academics who developed the term dispute whether the Government's version actually is assessment for learning (AfL).
Ministers this month published a 20-page document setting out a pound;150 million, three-year strategy to promote AfL, also known as the formative assessment approach. The Government wants every child to know what they are doing, and what they need to do to improve and set themselves on an "ambitious trajectory of improvement".
Over the next academic year, every school will be given access to web-based tools to review their AfL practice. In addition, all must try the Assessing Pupils' Progress system developed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which presents a checklist for teachers to identify pupils' strengths and weaknesses in key stages 2 and 3 English, maths and science.
By 2010, every school will be expected to have a member of its senior management team responsible for "leading the development of strong assessment systems". The strategy also aims to identify schools that are strong in this area, so they can support weaker ones.
But the academics who developed AfL say encouraging pupils to think of their progress in terms of numerical targets misses the point.
Paul Black, emeritus professor of science education at King's College London, led research that underpinned the first use of the term AfL in 1999. He said: "The main idea conveyed by this strategy is the belief that target-setting and frequent assessment of learning will help pupils learn more effectively. This is not assessment for learning. It may help learning, but it is not what I and colleagues have been writing about and helping teachers with since 1998."
His concerns are shared by Bill Boyle, director of Manchester University's Centre for Formative Assessment Studies, who described the strategy as "just a camouflaged version of assessment of learning for accountability purposes". He said there was nothing in it about how teachers should use their day-to-day interactions with pupils to improve their teaching, which is the essence of assessment for learning.
Evidence from Ofsted, submitted to a Parliamentary inquiry into the curriculum, describes AfL nationally as weak, with secondaries, in particular, ill-prepared to provide it.
The inspectors' report said: "Too many teachers still fail to see the connection between accurate and regular assessment and good teaching which leads to learning. Primary schools are generally further ahead because heads have ensured consistent practices across their schools and most primary teachers come to know pupils very well."
A Department for Children, Schools and Families spokeswoman said the strategy had been developed with experts at the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the National Strategies. She said: "We want every child to know how they are doing and to understand their next step and how to get there. And we want every teacher to learn from what they and their peers do well."
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What is assessment for learning?
The approach uses assessment to improve pupils' understanding, not simply as a record of scores. It can mean a teacher writing constructive comments on a pupil's homework and chatting with them about it, rather than just giving a mark.
Assessment for learning can also include informal judgements made by teachers observing pupils in class.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority says: "Assessment for learning involves using assessment in the classroom to raise pupils' achievement. It is based on the idea that pupils will improve most if they understand the aim of their learning, where they are in relation to this aim and how they can achieve the aim (or close the gap in their knowledge)."
The QCA is careful to distinguish between formative assessment for learning and summative assessment of learning - the scoring of work.