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Teachers' understandings of formative assessment

Helen Dixon and Ruth Williams
Auckland College of Education, Auckland, New Zealand.

A paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Leeds, 12-15 September 2001


An extensive body of overseas literature has demonstrated that formative assessment can lead to significant learning gains for children. However, there is a corresponding amount of evidence which shows that formative assessment is not well understood by teachers and is weak in practice. Recent research supports the view that conceptually teachers are confused about the nature, purpose and effect of formative assessment. While teachers accept the basic argument that assessment has a positive role to play in the promotion of student learning they are not able to articulate clearly how they utilise assessment information to enhance learning within the context of their day to day classroom programmes.

The current research project investigates in greater depth teachers' understandings and use of formative assessment and factors contributing to those understandings. Specifically, this paper examines the ways in which teachers of years one to eight children use assessment information in the areas of reading, written language and oral language. In light of these findings suggestions for the professional development of teachers are discussed.


Much has been written in recent times about the formative and summative functions of assessment (Bell & Cowie, 1997; Black, 1993; Crooks, 1988; Gipps, 1994, 1995; Harlen & James, 1997; Pryor & Torrance, 1997; Torrance & Pryor, 1995). Considerable debate has occurred within the literature about their relative roles and merits (Broadfoot, 1988; Gipps, 1990; Torrance, 1993). Theoretically, each has a different role to play (Harlen & James, 1997) and each should therefore have quite different properties and qualities from the other (Black, 1986; Gipps, 1994). As Sadler (1989) has stated, many of the principles appropriate for summative assessment are not necessarily transferable to formative assessment. He has argued that formative assessment requires a distinctive conceptualisation and technology of its own if it is to contribute directly to helping children learn.

Of concern to a number of researchers, has been the lack of clarity about the distinctions between formative and summative assessment (Black & Wiliam, 1998). This lack of clarity has also been evident in official curriculum and assessment documents (TGAT, 1988; NZCF, 1993) developed to support the recent educational reforms, which confuse and blur the difference in these functions and their relationship to each other (Harlen & James, 1997). The essential difference between the formative and summative functions has not been specified clearly. Within official documents great importance and emphasis has been placed on timing: formative to occur during instruction and summative at some end point, thus implying that timing is the key difference. Significantly, the real features which differentiate the two, purpose and effect, have been given scant attention and have not been articulated clearly. Moreover, the two functions have been presented as unproblematic with policy makers assuming that formative and summative assessment are well understood by teachers (Harlen & James, 1997; Harlen & Malcolm, 1996; Mavrommatis, 1996; Torrance, 1993; Willis, 1992). As a consequence there is now a fundamental confusion in teachers' minds about these two kinds of assessment (Harlen & James, ibid; Mavrommatis, ibid) with many teachers not able to distinguish clearly between these two quite different functions of assessment (Harlen & Malcolm, 1996).

Formative assessment as it is now conceptualised has come to incorporate notions of identifying progress and providing feedback to students through the use of assessment methods which will support and promote deep rather than surface learning (Pryor & Torrance, 1997). This implies a different, more dynamic, interactive and challenging role for teachers (Bell & Cowie, 1997; Black, 1993; Black & Wiliam, 1998; Torrance, 1993) as they are charged with the responsibility for being responsive to student need, intervening where necessary as teaching and learning are occurring. However this conception of formative assessment is both ambitious and complex (Dwyer, 1998; Perrenoud, 1998; Pryor & Torrance, 1997; Torrance & Pryor, 1995; Tunstall & Gipps, 1995) as it requires teachers to have an understanding of constructivist theories of learning (Black, 2000, 2001; Gipps, 1994; Shepard, 2000). Furthermore if teachers are to be responsive to student need they must have a deep knowledge of the subject matter they are teaching. Without subject matter knowledge teachers are not able to ask the right questions, anticipate conceptual pitfalls or to develop a repertoire of tasks that will assist students to take the next learning steps (Shepard, 2000). This demand is especially difficult for primary school teachers who are required to teach a raft of subjects.

As Shepard (1995) has maintained, the introduction of an innovation such as formative assessment, will not necessarily improve learning. She has argued that to move formative assessment from rhetoric to reality every effort must be made to gain the support, cooperation and commitment of teachers in its use. Of significance, are findings from other studies which have shown that while teachers wanted help to translate assessment principles into practice (Gipps & James, 1996), generally they have been expected to implement formative assessment strategies with little support and few additional resources to assist them in the process (Broadfoot, Osborne, Panel & Pollard, 1996; Mavromattis, 1996). As Willis and Bourke (1998) have argued, the quality of the leadership provided to teachers is a key factor in the promotion of educational change. The effectiveness of those initiating change is critical, for as agents of change, they are the mediators between Government policy and classroom practice.

A number of overseas studies have shown that the implementation of new assessment initiatives has been problematic for teachers as they attempt to put policy into practice (Bachor & Anderson, 1994; Broadfoot et al, 1996; Daugherty, 1996; Mavrommatis, 1996). Broadfoot et al (1996) have argued that during any implementation change there is a time when there is a gap between rhetoric and reality which teachers must attempt to resolve, often with little support and limited resources. These authors have contended that teachers bridge this gap by adopting coping strategies, some of which may be at odds with their preferred pedagogies and their personal beliefs about teaching, learning and assessment. Other studies have shown that the changes teachers have made to their assessment practice have, at times, been counter productive and in conflict with the stated aims of the policy initiatives which have triggered them (McCallum, Gipps, McAlister & Brown, 1995; Willis, 1992). Within the New Zealand context an emerging body of literature has revealed that while there has been general support from primary school teachers for the New Zealand Curriculum Framework, the implementation of assessment requirements has been far more problematic (Aikin, 1994; Baker, 1995; Faire, 1994; Renwick & Gray, 1995) and has been the area in which teachers feel they need further development (Renwick & Gray, ibid).

In their study of teachers in the United Kingdom Harlen and James (1997), found that the unclear distinction between formative and summative assessment evident in policy documents had a significant effect on teachers' practice. As teachers struggled to complete assessments for two distinct purposes, the purposes have become confused. As a consequence of this conflation of summative and formative purposes, little genuine formative assessment was evident. Significantly, if formative assessment was occurring, teachers were unaware of it. Often teachers believed they were assessing formatively but were in reality completing on going or continuous summative assessment which they then used primarily for reporting purposes. Studies by Bell and Cowie (1997); Black (1986, 1993); Harlen and Qualter (1991) and Nitko (1995) have reported very similar findings.

In her work in New Zealand Baker (1995), found that teachers did not view assessment as integral to teaching and learning, rather, they saw it as an additional task which bore little relationship to what occurred in the classroom. Subsequently, this created in them a dislike and cynicism towards assessment. For these teachers, there was a feeling of being overloaded with assessment requirements. Irving (1995) has argued that this sense of overload leads teachers to grasp for survival strategies which will in turn negate and undermine confidence in their ability to assess.

Most historical studies of assessment, dominated by the tradition of high stakes summative assessment practice, have provided little information about formative assessment and its use (Black, 1993). Concerns about the lack of data related to formative assessment, combined with doubts about the claims made for formative assessment by policy makers and its feasibility and practicality for classroom practice, have led to formative assessment becoming the focus of a number of studies both overseas and in New Zealand. These studies have attempted to ascertain teachers' understandings of formative assessment and have provided emerging descriptions of what formative assessment may look like in practice (Bell & Cowie, 1997; Black, 1993; Crooks, 1988; Gipps et al, 1995; McCallum et al, 1993; Pryor & Torrance, 1997; Torrance, 1993; Torrance & Pryor, 1995). Longitudinal research projects undertaken by McCallum et al (ibid), Gipps et al (ibid) and Torrance and Pryor (ibid) indicated that while teachers have accepted the basic argument that about the positive educational role assessment had to play in the promotion of student learning, understanding of their role and that of the learner in formative assessment was inadequately understood and explicated. Furthermore, these researchers found that teachers generally had a limited theoretical understanding of how assessment could and should be integrated into the learning teaching process.

Crooks' (1988) seminal work on assessment and its effect on classroom learning revealed that formative assessment was generally weak in practice, with much classroom assessment encouraging superficial and rote learning. More recent research has confirmed these findings with some researchers contending that the extent and nature of formative assessment is impoverished (Daws & Singh, 1996) and in serious need of development (Russell, Qualter & McGuigan, 1996). Bachor and Anderson (1994) attributed this lack of understanding to the fact that many teachers do not possess the interpretive frameworks that are necessary to coordinate all the assessment information needed to enhance learning. Subsequent studies have shown that feedback to the learner (an essential component in formative assessment) is either typically low (Black & Wiliam, 1998) or has little or no relationship to the learning which is taking place (Pryor & Torrance, 1997; Torrance & Pryor, 1995). Additionally, the research undertaken by Torrance and Pryor (ibid) revealed that teachers had limited knowledge of theories of learning and their relationship to theories and methods of assessment. As Sadler (1998) has noted even after several decades of research into formative assessment, there still remains much which is unresolved and problematic and much which warrants further investigation.



This research study aimed to investigate teachers' understandings of formative assessment. Specifically, the study aimed to:

1. identify what teachers perceived to be the key differences between formative and summative assessment;

2. ascertain how teachers utilised assessment information particularly in the areas of reading, written and oral language;

3. identify what factors have shaped and influenced teachers' understandings and use of formative assessment.


Planned as an exploratory study to be conducted with 40 primary school teachers: 10 teaching Year One and Two children, 10 teaching Year Three and Four children, 10 teaching Year Five and Six children and 10 teaching Year Seven and Eight children, the research was conducted in two phases. Phase One involved the 10 teachers of Year One and Two children; Phase Two the thirty teachers teaching children from Years Three to Eight children. Teachers within each of the year groups were selected randomly from the Auckland College of Education's directory of associate teachers. Using this directory which provides information about each associate, their school and class level, associate teachers were then be placed in one of four year groups. Once selected teachers were telephoned individually at their school and invited to participate. This process continued until the required number of teachers who consented to be in the study was selected. All teachers approached, agreed to participate in the study.

Data was gathered by semi structured audio taped interviews. These interviews were transcribed then analysed using qualitative and quantitative techniques. The identification of emergent themes was a critical step in the qualitative analysis. Initially the data gathered was collated under each of the interview questions. This was followed by a quantitative analysis to determine the frequency of responses. Broad categories and emerging themes related to the three major aims of the project were then identified and subsequently reported in this manner. Establishing such categories and themes is a central element of the analysis process (Hammersley & Atkinson, 1983) and in the present study descriptive and conceptual categories were created to make sense of the data. Mason (1994) has defined descriptive categories as lists of substantive topics which can be used to index transcripts whereas conceptual categories are those grounded in theoretical perspectives which aim to tease out aspects of the data which are relevant to the research questions.This paper reports the findings of the project.

Results and Discussion

Teachers' perceptions of key differences between formative and summative assessment

The initial aim of the current study was to examine teachers' perceptions about the key differences between formative and summative assessment. In attempting to achieve this aim, teachers in the study were asked the question "why assess?" in terms of their own, and school wide practice. Their responses indicated that all teachers interviewed regarded the purposes of assessment to be both formative and summative. A further indicated that, in general, few had a broader conception of formative assessment encapsulating the notion of Bell and Cowie's (1997) interactive formative assessment. In general, their articulated responses were limited in relation to the more recent literature and current notions of formative assessment. With the exception of four of the teachers interviewed, participants focussed upon what Bell and Cowie have described as planned formative assessment. The majority of teachers mentioned the use of assessment information to identify individual needs, plan programmes of work, identify children's strengths and weaknesses and group children.

Teachers in the present study all identified the summative purposes of assessment. These included reporting to parents; reporting to the school's Board of Trustees and the wider community including ERO and the government; the collation of school wide information often to be used for comparative purposes both within and outside of the school; using assessment data as a marketing tool; the identification and setting of school wide goals, and school policy writing.

Teachers' use of formative assessment

A key intention of this study was to ascertain how teachers used assessment formatively in the areas of reading and written and oral language. The selection of these specific curriculum areas was based on the belief that traditionally New Zealand teachers have felt confident and competent in the teaching of literacy and therefore it could be assumed that they would be reasonably confident in the assessment of such areas. Several New Zealand and overseas studies (Dixon, 1999; McCallum et al, 1995) have shown that both teacher confidence and content knowledge in a particular curriculum area are linked to their ability to assess children's learning.

Formative assessment has been defined as assessment which is essentially an ongoing component of good teaching. It has the potential to enhance the learning teaching process through the provision of feedback to the learner and teacher responsiveness to student need (Gipps, 1994; Torrance, 1993; Torrance & Pryor, 1995). Within this model children are expected to learn in idiosyncratic ways and assessment is used not only to determine if learning has been achieved but also to determine what children may achieve given the appropriate opportunities and experiences. Assessment is very much an on going dynamic process where the information gained goes beyond providing feedback and most importantly informs future action. Significantly, the interactions between the teacher and the child are seen as part of the assessment process itself. This interpretation of formative assessment moves assessment into an integral position within the learning teaching process (Bell & Cowie, 1997; Torrance, 1993).

Written Language:

In the present study the teaching and assessment of written language provided the most specific examples of the ways in which teachers were able to use assessment information formatively. In this area teachers were most able to respond spontaneously to the assessment information they gained as children were engaged in a variety of activities. All of the teachers surveyed expected to work and respond to children in an individualised manner. Conferencing children was reported by all the teachers as both a frequently used and useful way of collecting and utilising assessment information. Teachers were able to provide a number of illustrative examples of the ways in which learning could be supported as children were set relevant activities and given appropriate help as the teacher worked alongside them, challenging their previously held conceptions and practices. Sadler (1989, 1998) has argued that it is the nature and quality of the interaction between teacher and pupil that determines whether or not learning will be enhanced. Teachers, when discussing the type of interactions they had with children during this conferencing activity, stressed the importance of identifying areas that children needed to practice or work on if they were to move forward in their development of understandings and skills. Providing opportunities which enabled teachers to observe and work alongside children, listening to them talking out loud and investigating their own errors was seen as critical.

In the majority of instances, teachers interviewed, used this information intuitively, storing it in their head for future use, rather than recording it in any formal way. Any recording of information was used in a planned formative way in that it served as a reminder for future teaching. Teachers did not document this information for summative purposes.

The teachers did not group children for written language. Common practice was whole class teaching. This applied to all year groups. However the planned use of formative assessment was evident when teachers talked of constructing a group for specific instructional based purposes. In this way a teaching episode arose out of children's needs, those identified by the teacher. Teachers working in the middle and senior levels of the primary sysyem reported that children's draft writing books provided them with insights into children's learning which were used subsequently for planning and teaching purposes.

Many writers emphasise the importance of involving children in the assessment process, believing that this will help them understand more about the learning that is occurring and how best they will be able to promote and enhance that learning (Black, 1993; Cowie & Bell, 1996; Crooks, 1988; Sadler, 1989). In this way decisions can be made not only by the teacher but by the children themselves, thus encouraging and empowering children to take responsibility for their own learning. Some teachers also noted that key information gathered during conferencing was noted down in the children's books. This was so the children themselves would be cognisant of what they needed to practice to reach the next learning step. This however was not common practice. When asked, many teachers in the study reported that they did not share learning goals with children.


While examples provided in written language by the teachers were more consistent with what Bell and Cowie (1997) have described as the interactive use of formative assessment the same in general could not be said for reading. In reading, the planned use of formative assessment was far more evident. As a diagnostic tool running records were considered by all teachers to be a valuable source of information to identify the level of instruction. Running records were also used to confirm the teacher's judgment that the child should be moved up a level or to group children for further instruction. Teachers incorporated assessment information into their planning and subsequent teaching. Interestingly, as opposed to the situation in written language, teachers interviewed tended to talk about group rather than individual needs when talking of specific teaching episodes.

Only a few teachers discussed the importance of analysing running records for specific cues related to an individual's reading behaviour. These teachers emphasised the importance of being able to identify children's actual reading behaviours so that they could teach to their specific needs. They also explained information gained from the running record must be shared with the children so they are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their reading behaviours and strategies. This seemed to be especially important for those children who had experienced difficulties in reading.

In a number of instances running record results were filed for summative purposes. They were used to show progress over time and results were graphed, or as supporting evidence for the decisions that teachers had made.

To a lesser extent, teachers, generally those who had been reading recovery trained, talked of how they were able to elicit, interpret and utilise assessment information as they were working with children.

Oral Language:

The oral, written and visual components of language are considered to be both extremely complex and highly interrelated (Crooks & Flockton, 1998; Flockton & Crooks, 1996; Literacy Task force, 1999). Indeed the Literacy Task force (ibid) has posited that children's success in reading and writing is dependent upon the knowledge and skills they have acquired in the listening and speaking domains. Importantly, experts in the field of assessment, for example Crooks and Flockton (ibid), have argued that for teachers to make valid analyses of students' skills, knowledge and understandings, they must be able to focus on these important dimensions of learning, for these will form the basis of what children know and can do. A previous study by the writers (Williams & Dixon, 1998) found however, that teachers had difficulty in interpreting and utilising the assessment information gained in oral language situations. Within the context of the present study, while teachers in varying degrees, were able to focus on a number of important learning dimensions in written language and reading, they were less able to do this in the area of oral language.

In general teachers were unable to explain clearly how they assisted children's learning in the area of oral language. Mainly, they talked about focussing on general aspects of oral language, emphasising the development of children's speaking and listening skills and the ways in which they attempted to increase children's participation in speaking and listening activities.

Teachers attempted to meet children's oral language needs through the provision of whole class activities rather than through individualised or group instruction. However, individual children who were perceived to have more severe or extreme needs were referred on to more expert others such as the speech language therapist.

In only a few instances did teachers talk specifically of catering to individual or group needs in the area of oral language. One junior school teacher provided a number of illustrative examples of the way in which group needs were catered for in a planned formative way. Using children's individual writing responses and their four week oral language sample as a basis for action, she planned specific activities which aimed to increase children's vocabulary or address specific grammatical needs. Children who had more specialised needs, for example NESB (non English speaking background) children, became part of the junior school's NESB group where they received extra instruction. Interestingly, children were sometimes grouped at story time so that those for example who had more sophisticated oral language could have a story read to them which would challenge and extend their thinking. Several teachers, teaching at various different class levels, talked about the importance of increasing children's awareness and use of vocabulary and grammar as vehicles to both express and extend children's thinking. Significantly these teachers understood the relationship between oral language, reading and writing. They were clear of the specific content they wanted to teach.

Of concern however, was the number of teachers who neither collected, analysed nor utilised assessment information related to children's oral language. Several teachers provided a number of possible explanations for this. Shulman (1987) has argued that teachers need a range of knowledge bases to be able to teach successfully. These include a thorough and deep understanding of the subject matter and content to be taught; knowledge of how children learn, both individually and developmentally so that they have a clear idea of where children are at, and the specific nature of their problem. As well, teachers need knowledge of the progression of ideas within a given topic and general and specific pedagogical content knowledge that will enable them to utilise a range of strategies that will best elicit and act on children's ideas. While the teachers in this study were confident in their ability to assess children's learning in reading and writing this did not necessarily transfer over into the oral language area. In part this was explained by the teachers themselves as a perceived lack of a number of knowledge bases which Shulman (ibid) has deemed critical. Specifically, these teachers felt that they lacked the knowledge of the content to be taught, and knowledge of the developmental stages children may go through in the acquisition of oral language. This in turn both inhibited their ability to assess where children were at and to move them forward to the next step.

Factors that have shaped and influenced teachers' understandings and uses of formative assessment

The final aim of this particular study was to identify factors which have shaped and influenced teachers' understandings and uses of formative assessment. For the purposes of this paper selected findings only are presented.

As discussed previously, a number of researchers in the field have alluded to the complex nature of formative assessment. (Dwyer, 1998; Pryor & Torrance, 1997; Tunstall & Gipps, 1995). While acknowledging that teachers generally accept the importance of formative assessment in relation to children's learning, these researchers argue that teachers do not understand fully the nature or function of formative assessment. For teachers to begin to embed formative assessment effectively into their programmes there needs to be significant long term professional development opportunities (Black,1993; Dwyer, 1998; Gipps et al, 1995; Harlen & James, 1997). In a previous study by one of the authors (Dixon, 1999), teachers attributed great importance to the formative potential of assessment and its ability to enhance teaching and learning. The teachers in her study believed that the relatively new assessment requirements in schools had enabled them to cater more effectively for the individual needs of children. However, when asked to articulate their practice in more detail, they were not able to explain clearly how they used the assessment information gained to enhance children's learning. Hargreaves and Fullan (1992) have asserted that any attempts to change teachers' practice would be affected by the context in which the development occurs; that the context would enhance or inhibit the development of the individual. The degree of change undertaken by teachers is strongly related to the amount of interaction they have with each other and with others able to provide assistance. Regular, frequent and meaningful communication along with shared support and help were found to be strong indicators of successful implementation (Fullan, 1991).

All the teachers in the current study identified areas of school wide staff development in the area of assessment. Significantly, the focus of staff development had been in the area of summative rather than formative assessment. In describing the types of activities schools and teachers had been engaged in, it was apparent that the recording and reporting components of assessment practice were given prominence with scant attention paid the utilisation of assessment data for formative purposes.

In all but a few instances, staff development was related to national curriculum documents and assessment of learning outcomes. Many of the schools represented by teachers interviewed in this study were concentrating upon benchmarking through the creation of exemplars of student performance. While benchmarks can be used either formatively, to improve performance or summatively, essentially as an accountability device (McGaw, 1995), an extensive review of the literature in this area has revealed that they have been used predominately as a summative device to determine whether or not a student has reached the desired outcome (Peddie, Hattie & Vaughan, 1999), or as an accountability measure aimed at creating standards and achieving within school consistency of teacher judgements (Clarke & Gipps, 1997). Clearly, in the current study the focus of teachers' activity was related to the creation of standards and to achieving consistency in terms of the levelling of children's performances particularly in the area of written language. The teachers hoped that their endeavours would lead to the creation of consistent school wide, district and national standards. They were however unsure as to the purposes of these benchmarks once the benchmarks had been decided upon. While many considered that this was a formative assessment exercise, none of the teachers involved in this process could identify how the information would be used in a formative way. Most regarded these benchmarks as a goal to aim for with children but not as a tool which would enable them to progress children's performance towards that goal.

While teachers in the present study thought that assessment was an important tool to enhance children's learning, they acknowledged that staff development related to assessment had little or nothing to do with actually providing them with the strategies to help them improve children's performance. Their general feeling was that the focus had been on determining what to assess rather than how to assess and the formative utilisation of information.

Teachers were concerned that if assessment information was to be used in a formative way, they needed to carry out fewer assessment tasks rather than more and they needed to have more scope to assess in their own way rather than in ways decided for them. Moreover, in terms of children's learning, the teachers needed to know what is was that they should be looking for: they needed to have subject knowledge and knowledge of the sequential processes of children's learning (Shepard, 2000), a better knowledge of how to analyse assessment data and a better knowledge of how to use the data to enhance children's learning. They also felt they needed more time to reflect on what they were doing.

An interesting response was elicited from those teachers in the current study who had either graduated more recently, or who had undergone study related to assessment in their pursuit of further qualifications. It could be assumed that these participants in the study would have current in depth knowledge and under standing of formative assessment. They were critical of professionals from outside their school who were helping them in particular with benchmarking. They implied that these professionals lacked knowledge about formative assessment and that this had not assisted the process. As a result these teachers did not consider that benchmarking was useful in helping children with their learning.

The critical role of the leader in teacher development is well documented (Fullan, 1991; Southworth, 1998; Willis & Bourke, 1998) but is one that poses a number of significant problems in the assessment area. As Bourke, Poskitt and McAlpine (1996) discovered, many experienced teachers have had little preservice and inservice training in assessment philosophy and practice yet they are often the ones who have the responsibility for implementing change within their school. Indeed Hill, Smardon and Couch (1998) when leading a large professional development contract in the Waikato in New Zealand area asked some principals to reconsider the teachers who had been appointed as 'lead' teachers to manage the assessment change within their schools. In the current study several teachers emphasised the importance of leadership in the promotion of meaningful assessment practices. These teachers explained that principals, and senior management staff needed to understand clearly the purposes of assessment in general and the place and role of assessment in the enhancement of children's learning in particular. Concerns were raised by many of the teachers in this study about the evident lack of understanding of senior staff in their schools related to this.

Klenowski (1998) has contended that if effective assessment practices (including formative assessment) are to be part of a classroom teacher's repertoire, then teachers need to be taught these concepts and the language of assessment in the initial years of their professional development. When the teachers in the current study were asked where they had gained their ideas and understanding of formative assessment, a large proportion of the less experienced teachers, identified their initial teacher education programme as having the most significant influence. Some of the more experienced teachers interviewed in this study explained that their own years of teaching experience had helped them to form their ideas about formative assessment. However, a significant number of them who were upgrading their qualifications, attributed their increased knowledge about formative assessment to the courses they had taken towards their degree.


Past research has identified a fundamental confusion in teachers' minds related to the nature and purpose of formative assessment. It is encouraging to note that teachers in the present study had a much clearer understanding of formative assessment than previous research would indicate. At a theoretical level teachers were able to explain the main distinction between formative and summative assessment and identify some of the key characteristics of formative assessment. Significantly, when asked to describe their formative assessment practice, there were noticeable gaps and confusions in their articulated understanding of formative assessment. This is not surprising in view of current theories of formative assessment that require teachers to reconceptualise their theories of learning and teaching. Indeed researchers such as Hargreaves (1998) argue that teachers need time to translate theory into practice and this will only occur through programmes of "development and dissemination which are matched to the capacity of teachers to take ownership of change, and at the same time to rebuild their theories in a form that supports and gives coherence to practice" (Black, 2000, p. 410).

While teachers were able to describe their use of assessment information formatively in the areas of reading and writing, written language was the only area where they could provide examples of the interactive use of formative assessment. However these examples themselves were limited. In attempting to clarify the links between formative assessment and constructivist theories of learning recent literature has emphasised the need to share learning goals with children (Black, 2000a) and to incorporate feedback into the scaffolding process (Shepard, 2000). While most teachers discussed the importance of working with and alongside children, in most cases their discussion did not include reference to sharing learning goals with children, or the importance of providing them with feedback. We (as the researchers) are not clear at this point in time, as to the possible reasons for the exclusion of these important facets of formative assessment in teachers' descriptions of their practice.

It was noticeable that when teachers articulated their assessment practice in reading, the planned use of formative assessment dominated the discussion. Consistent with the findings of Harlen and James (1997), it appeared that if teachers were using interactive formative assessment, they were unaware of it.

Although experts in the field of literacy have stressed the interrelationship between oral, visual and written language (Literacy Taskforce, 1999), this relationship was not so evident in teachers' talk in the present study. While language experts have argued that oral language provides the basis for future success in reading and writing (ibid), this was an area that teachers, generally, were not confident in and had limited knowledge of both how to teach children and how to assess their learning in oral language. This was not surprising as it had not been a focus of either their pre service or in service experience.

Researchers such as Shulman (1987) contend that if teachers are to be effective in their practice, they need a number of knowledge bases including: in depth knowledge of the subject they are teaching, an awareness of the progressions that children move through and knowledge of how to teach the subject effectively. The present study has highlighted what appears to be a gap in teachers' knowledge in all these areas in relation to oral language.

A number of studies have highlighted the importance of assisting teachers through the provision of professional support, in their endeavours to embed formative assessment effectively into their classroom programmes (Black, 1993; Dwyer, 1998; Harlen & James, 1997). Of concern to the researchers involved in the present study, is that while there was considerable attention paid to assessment on a school-wide basis, overwhelmingly, the focus of this attention was on the summative aspects of assessment. In the majority of schools where teachers were interviewed, a significant amount of time had been spent in the development of exemplars and benchmarks in various curriculum areas. Implicit within this endeavour was the belief that the benchmarks themselves could be utilised in a formative way, yet no actual time was spent with teachers in focussing upon the ways in which they could help children to move towards these benchmarks. While a number of teachers questioned the relevance of such professional development activities, in general, they lacked the interpretive frameworks which would enable them to articulate and justify their concerns.

In most cases, school wide staff development paid little attention to the formative aspects of assessment. Staff development opportunities which focussed on the enhancement of children's learning were, in the researchers' opinion, conspicuous by their absence. This raises questions about the efficacy of staff development opportunities and brings into question the ability of those professionals who are leading the in-service. Being an expert in a particular curriculum area is not sufficient in itself when it comes to assessing children's learning in a formative manner. Staff undertaking leadership roles in the development of school wide assessment practices need to have expert knowledge of current theories of formative assessment, how these relate to the ways in which children learn and how they can be incorporated into classroom programmes (Gipps, 1994).


A final note: While teachers had a theoretical understanding of the nature, place and purpose of formative assessment in the teaching learning process, this at times became confused when describing aspects of their practice. School wide staff development perpetuated this confused notion and more significantly, drew teachers' attention to practices that are of limited benefit to children and their learning. A source of frustration to many teachers in this study was their inability to influence meaningful change within their school context. Therefore to increase teachers' knowledge of formative assessment there needs to be a consistent approach nationwide which considers in detail, theoretical notions underpinning conceptions of formative assessment, which are in turn linked to theories of how children learn.


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This document was added to the Education-line database on 05 March 2003