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Implementing Assessment for Learning in Schools

We know that minute-to-minute and day-to-day assessment can improve student learning. What we know far less about is how teachers can be supported in developing these practices in their own classrooms.
We know that “one size fits all” does not work in teacher professional development. What might be exactly the right thing to do in one situation might be exactly the wrong thing to do in a similar, but different situation. Expert teachers do not use general, all-purpose approaches to solving problems, but rather generate solutions that take advantage of specific details in the challenges they face. That is why “what works” is not the right question in education; everything works somewhere, and nothing works everywhere. The right question is “under what conditions does this work?” That is why if we are serious about developing assessment for learning, we must help each teacher find her or his own way of doing this.
The opposite of “one size fits all” is to allow each teacher to choose what they want to do. This may be attractive, but it is not rigorous. Teachers may choose to change things that have no impact on student achievement. The trick is, therefore, to generate teacher professional development that is open enough to allow each teacher to adapt the new ideas into their own practice, but structured enough so that the adaptation does not produce a “lethal mutation” which renders the innovation impotent.
Over the last three years, I and my colleagues at the Learning and Teaching Research Center at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey, USA have been working with many groups of teachers on the best ways to implement assessment for learning. Some approaches have been extremely successful, and others less so, but even from our failures, we have usually been able to learn something (and often more than from our successes). As a result of reflection on both our successes and failures, we have been able to identify five elements that increase the successful implementation of assessment for learning: accountability, support, choice, flexibility, and gradualism.
Most professionals involved in teacher development will have had the experience of generating considerable enthusiasm for, and commitment to, change during a summer workshop, only to find that all the good intentions seem to be erased by the demands of the new school year. That is why we suggest that teachers should make a commitment in writing about what they are going to change about their practice (the action plan) and then to be held accountable by colleagues at monthly meetings for making those changes in their practice. Each month, every teacher describes what he or she tried and how it went. Teachers have told us that having to face their colleagues and ‘deliver’ on the promises they made the previous month helps them move their “change” task to the top of their in-tray.
The other side of the coin of accountability is support. We have found that the at the monthly meetings, teachers are able to offer each other advice when the planned changes are not going well, and the fact that these meetings are groups of peers, rather than an expert teaching a novice, appears to be particularly beneficial. It must be borne in mind however, that ultimately, implementing assessment for learning involves changes in day-to-day, and even minute-to-minute classroom practice. That is why we also recommend that teachers engage in peer observation. To clearly distinguish these observations from those routinely carried out to manage performance, these observations should be done by genuine peers rather than those in a hierarchical relationship. Another important requirement is that the teacher being observed must set the agenda for the observation and spell out for the observer what should count as evidence, by reference to her or his action plan. By defining the observer’s role, both in terms of what is to be looked for and what counts as evidence, the observer’s own prejudices are minimized, and the difference between this and supervisory observation is emphasized.
Teachers often describe the process of changing their practice as “scary”. Implementing assessment for learning in particular makes many teachers feel as if they are being asked to “give up control” of their classrooms. However, teachers responsible for choosing what they will change about their practice feel empowered, especially when they can choose among techniques those that appeal to them. This choice lies, however, within a framework of accountability. While teachers are free to choose what they change, they are accountable for changing something. They are also accountable for showing to their peers how their innovations are consistent with the principles of assessment for learning. One especially powerful way to support this is for peers to ask each teacher, “What’s formative about that?”, in order to emphasize the need for the changes in practice to be focused on using assessment evidence to adapt teaching to meet student needs.
A technique that works for one teacher may not work for another, but may do so after some modification, Teachers need to be encouraged to modify techniques to make them work in their classrooms, but they also need to understand enough of the research evidence so that the changes they make do not render the innovation ineffective.
Asking teachers to make wholesale changes in their practice is a little like asking a golfer to change her swing during a tournament. Teachers have to maintain the fluency of their classroom routines, while at the same time disrupting them. The action plans that teachers develop should specify a small number of changes — ideally two or three — that they will make in their teaching. In our experience, teachers who try to change more than three things in their practice at the same time are never successful. They try to do too much, and their classroom descends into chaos, as a result of which they revert to what they know how to do. In other words, going slower produces faster real change.
Our experience is that, equipped with some basic ideas about assessment for learning, teachers can support each other in making radical improvements in their students’ learning, provided each teacher is responsible for their own development targets. It is perfectly OK to hold teachers accountable for making changes in their practice, provided the teachers have choice in how they put the basic principles of assessment for learning into effect, that they are not pushed to make changes faster than they can incorporate them into their normal practice, and that they have the support and accountability that a group of like-minded group of peers can provide. Teachers doing it for themselves…

About the Author: Dylan Wiliam
Tests And Assessments from NFER Nelson

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