Summary of Theme 1:
How can educational design support assessment for learning and progression?

Paul Black

Report by Sarah Codrington

Five main issues appear to have emerged in the discussion.

The government’s Advancing Pupil Progress, with its aim of providing on-line tools to help teachers in the assessment of their pupils, seems to be contentious both because of foresight that use of it may become a statutory requirement, and because it is presented as support for a process, of frequent summative testing of pupils, of questionable value. Nevertheless, some of those present, including Tony Sherborne and Alice Onion, urged that we should participate in this project and work from within for improvement, rather than resist it.

More generally, it has been striking and encouraging to hear of several other types of tool to assist teachers in their work which have the advantage of being voluntary and of being set up by and for various groups. One example, the Institute of Physics on-line resources, as described by Claire Thomson, is impressive in its range, particularly in offering on-line support and in providing, in the case of the Advancing Physics course, an e-mail site for teachers, students and technicians committed to that course. Daniel Sandford-Smith described a similar resource site provided by Gatsby, and Angela Hall suggested that it might be useful to link these resource sites in some way so that teachers could take advantage of them.

A different problem, highlighted by Tony Sherborne’s contribution, was teachers’ need to be able to plan pupils’ work, and to interpret their responses, in the light of some model of the ways in which new learners may progress in the depth and range of their understanding of the subject. We need to address the question of how to decide what goes before or after what in developing the learning of a subject, and such decisions ought to be based on research and practical experience in formulating optimum sequences in learning. Teachers need well-researched resources to help them meet this need, as does any designer of educational materials, for designers likewise have to have some rationale for the structure and sequence on which their materials may best be based.

My fourth choice is that of coursework: as Geoff Wake said, assessment of coursework can be a valuable part of an assessment scheme, because it gives students more power and responsibility for their own assessment and provides a more validly different and engaging way for students to show their fluency in the subject. In a different context, Amber Waite’s account of the “Great Plant Hunt” was a powerful example of this engaging power of an open-ended task. Yet sadly, in mathematics, coursework declined in value under the influence of tight external moderation systems, so that it reduced to student performance of a stereotyped set of ‘safe’ exercises, and was then abandoned by QCA because teachers didn’t want it to survive. This is one aspect of the broader problem of making summative assessment a naturally and necessarily helpful component of any good learning regime, so that there can be a positive link between formative and summative assessment, to replace the tensions and contradictions between these two that many teachers perceive at present. An example of this problem is an argument, between on the one side, that it is unfair to give a student helpful feedback in a course-work project or task that will lead to an assessed product, and on the other side that the fact that some students can better take advantage than others of critical feedback is evidence of their better potential to learn in future – evidence which should be reflected in any valid assessment.

Finally, for formative assessment itself, Brenda Keogh’s account of the use of concept cartoons shows how an imaginative device can help stimulate pupils to overcome their fear or shyness and begin to engage in discussion - a habit they all need to develop if they are to become effective learners. Yet there is contingency, for the responses of pupils are often unpredictable and have to be handled with care. It is revealing that some pupils were found to assume that any issue under discussion must have a right /wrong answer – the improvement of learning depends on more than improved skills and materials by and for teachers, it also depends on changing pupils’ own assumptions about learning.