The quick way to the top of the table

21st September 2001 at 01:00
'Formative' assessment is nice in theory, say teachers, but we're far too busy hitting exam targets to use it. Jon Slater reports on a study that could change quite a few minds

A School near the bottom of the GCSE league tables could pitch itself into the top third if teachers adopted a new assessment strategy, researchers say. "Formative assessment" could see pupils boost their GCSE results by between a quarter and half a grade in each subject.

Academics at King's College London say: "While it is generally acknowledged that increased use of formative assessment leads to higher-quality learning, it is often claimed that the pressure in schools to improve results in national curriculum tests and GCSE examinations precludes its use," say Dylan Wiliam and Clare Lee, the report's authors, whose findings are based on work at six schools.

"If replicated across a whole school, (these improvements) would raise the performance of a school at the 25th percentile of achievement nationally into the top half and possibly the top third.

"At the very least these data suggest that teachers do not have to choose between teaching well and getting good results." Also known as assessment for learning, the formative approach requires teachers to test pupils regularly to identify problems and offer feedback to help overcome them. Other features include comment-only marking and both peer- and self-assessment.

Most research on formative assessment comes from overseas. Analysis of 600 international studies by Dr Wiliam and Professor Paul Black in 1998 found overwhelming evidence that formative assessment boosts performance and that it benefits low-achieving pupils most.

The authors stress that the technique should be used, "not as a 'bolt-on' series of tactics, but integrated into planning, teaching and learning".

A total of 24 science and maths teachers in six schools took part in the research. The report acknowledges that it can prove difficult for teachers to put the findings of researchers into practice because "put simply they do not tell you what to do". Because of this they used training days to allow teachers to develop their own ideas of how to put theory into practice.

Each was given six-and-a-half days' training on the principles of formative assessment and encouraged to customise the techniques for use in a single class.

Dr Wiliam said that assessment for learning has only been adopted by a small minority of schools because it is difficult to put into practice. But it has supporters in high places. Writing in The TES in June, David Hargreaves, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, argued that the strategy could be used to reduce the burden of external testing. The QCA is now investigating how it could be used in schools.

"Assessment for learning has huge potential to raise student achievement," Professor Har-greaves said.

Dylan Wiliam and Clare Lee, authors of "Teachers developing assessment for learning: impact on student achievement", can be contacted by email:

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