Assessment for Learning

K-12 Testing

In both the U.S. and Britain, heavy reliance on government-mandated standardized exams, as well as teacher use of similar techniques that only sum up student learning — assessments of learning — have hindered the wider use of assessments for learning. The first focuses on making judgments, the second on how to use evidence from assessment to support and improve learning.


Standardized tests are simply inadequate for providing useful guidance to improve instruction for individual students (see “The Limits of Standardized Tests for Diagnosing and Assisting Student Learning,” fact sheet on the FairTest website). In addition, research has found that teachers in both countries have not been well-prepared to use assessments for learning.


The British Assessment Reform Group (ARG), formed by members of the British Education Research Association, has prepared several valuable pamphlets on assessment for learning, sometimes termed “formative” assessment. One presents ten Principles of Assessment for Learning; the other is Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box. Both follow on research by Paul Black and Dylan William showing the powerful effect that classroom-based formative assessment can have on student learning (see Examiner, Winter 1998-99).


Beyond the Black Box reports, “The research indicates that improving learning through assessment depends on five, deceptively simple factors:


• the provision of effective feedback to pupils;
• the active involvement of pupils in their own learning;
• adjusting teaching to take account of the results of assessment;
• a recognition of the profound influence assessment has on the motivation and self-esteem of pupils, both of which are crucial influences on learning;
• the need for pupils to be able to assess themselves and understand how to improve.”


These factors are clearly very different from standardized testing. For example, they require teachers to gather information about learning through such means as: observing students; asking open-ended questions; and enabling students to communicate their thinking in a variety of modes (writing, talking, drawings, role plays, and more). To really improve student learning, the report says, pupils must be “involved in decisions about their work rather than being passive recipients of teachers’ judgements of it.”
The 10 principles further elaborate this approach. If implemented, the principles could have a valuable impact on assessment practices.


• ARG documents are available on the web at
• The very valuable Black and William report is summarized in Phi Delta Kappan, on the web at