Formative assessment still evolving
The use and understanding of formative assessment in adult literacy, numeracy and language classes is variable and unsystematic in many developed countries. Attempts are being made to improve practice, but they are sometimes hampered because formative assessment is not well-defined. These are the emerging findings from an ongoing study on formative assessment commissioned by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). More optimistically, the study suggests that effective practice can be found in most of the countries surveyed. A conference workshop led by education consultants Jay Derrick (UK) and Alison Sutton (New Zealand) was told that the OECD had commissioned case studies based on observations in six European countries and the US. It had also commissioned reviews of research papers in English, French, Spanish and German. The English language literature review has been jointly funded by the OECD and a Nuffield and NRDC-funded research project called Improving Formative Assessment, due to report in 2008. It is finding that a range of formative assessment approaches can be effective, particularly for less confident learners. These include activities which involve self- and peer-assessment, collaborative learning, learning from mistakes, and group discussions on the quality of students' work. The English/language studies also suggest that the value of these approaches is undermined wherever success is measured wholly in terms of formal qualifications gained. The workshop presentation was followed by a discussion of questions raised by the research, such as:
■ How can more teachers be supported to use formative assessment?
■ How much is knowledge about formative assessment in schools transferable to adult learning?
Alison Sutton then described a proposed initiative in New Zealand to develop an online formative assessment tool. This would enable learners and teachers to select assessment tasks and questions and receive detailed qualitative feedback on the answers, which would help to plan future learning. Participants discussed the possibility of such tools being used bureaucratically and losing their formative potential. It was agreed that most materials, activities and tests can be used both formatively and summatively. This implies that future work should focus on teacher development and support.
The OECD study's draft reports can be found at www.oecd.org/edu/whatworks Its findings are expected to be published this autumn.