In 2002 academics in Scotland’s Schools of Education were invited to join the pilot programme of Assessment is for Learning. The programme sought to design a holistic assessment system for Scotland. In doing so, it drew heavily on the groundbreaking work of Black and Wiliam’s ‘Black Box’ assessment for learning research and development project. I opted to join project one, dealing with formative assessment, for a number of reasons: 1] I had worked in the early 90s in a school where my HoD had a passion for assessment, and he had enthused the rest of us with the potential of formative assessment; 2] while working in New Zealand in 1998, a colleague had dismissed the Black Box work (describing it as a passing fad!); 3] I was intrigued as to how the Black Box work – primarily a set of pedagogical strategies developed by teachers – had captured the political imagination (I would argue that the use of the term ‘assessment’ helped drive this); and 4] I was attracted to the AifL professional development model that engaged teachers with first principles to develop methods for their practice.

Involvement with AifL proved to be rewarding. It has, however, been sad to see its innovative approach to curriculum development fade as AifL has become mainstream. AifL has subsequently become a set of techniques to implement, rather than a methodology for developing good education. In the process, something fundamental has been lost. The tendency to see initiatives like AifL as ‘yet another thing that hard-pressed teachers have to add onto their already busy routines’ lies, I think, at the heart of the implementation issues currently afflicting CfE. And the move to framing AifL as a set of techniques that all teachers must use has led to a disconnection of purpose and method, as such techniques are often used without much consideration of what they might be for.

A particular difficulty lies in the commonplace understanding that formative and summative assessment are two different and even incompatible types of assessment. This is a false dichotomy in my view – one that Paul Black has written about recently (see It is instead helpful to see assessment in the following terms:
1.    Assessment is a means, rather than an end – to provide information about where students are at any given point in their education.
2.    Different methods of assessment should be devised that achieve this at various stages. Thus assessment should be both ongoing and embedded in classroom activities as well as coming at the end of a particular stage.
3.    Assessment methods can have multiple purposes – formative, diagnostic, summative, evaluative (i.e. to judge teachers’ work).
4.    A corollary of this it that assessment methods and associated activities should be designed to be fit for purpose – and particular methods may have multiple purpose (e.g. a class test being used formatively and summatively). So when using AifL techniques, teachers should consider carefully how they fit with the above purposes of assessment; if there is no clear link, then perhaps they should be thinking again about what they do and why. A further point to consider in this respect is whether activities used in class are in line with the four principles set out in Highland Council’s excellent framework for learning – see Is the activity (e.g. sharing learning intentions, traffic lighting) promoting participation, engagement, dialogue and thinking.

Assessment is challenging – but much more straightforward when addressed with clarity of purpose – and when methods are fit for purpose.


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