Why you need to develop assessment literacy

Written by Neenaz Ichaporia, Academic Manager, Blended Learning  

Assessment of learning or assessment for learning?

What comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘testing’? Do you imagine a large exam hall with rows of students, bending over their desks and furiously scribbling away, under a teacher’s vigilant gaze? Or you may think of a large-scale standardised test, like IELTS.

There is a tendency to consider assessment as big, standardised tests or summative, achievement tests. This traditional view is known as ‘assessment of learning’ and is used to evaluate learners, comparing them against established criteria, scales, or one another. Even the lexis we use reinforces this idea of assessment as something that is done to learners; a teacher ‘administers’ a test, while a learner ‘takes’ or ‘sits’ it.

Yet there is another increasingly popular position where assessment is learning orientated, known as ‘assessment for learning’. Rather than simply measuring a learner’s performance, assessment is used to gain valuable insights into the learning process. Both teachers and learners use feedback to improve learning and performance.

Educators increasingly acknowledge that ‘assessment of learning’ can weaken classroom practice, while using ‘assessment for learning’ can promote learner progress. Although the latter, more contemporary, view of assessment has gained popularity in pedagogy, it is unclear if it permeates our classroom practice. The fact remains that ‘assessment of learning rather than assessment for learning has preoccupied the minds of the profession for many years’.[1]

Therefore, it is increasingly important for teachers to recognise the role assessment plays in learning and teaching. In other words, we need ‘assessment literacy’, defined as ‘the knowledge about, and a comprehensive understanding of, students’ skills and ability, interpreting the collected data from the assessments, and using these interpretations to improve students’ learning and development by making appropriate decisions.’[2]

Perhaps without realising it, teachers assess learners all the time and in a variety of ways. In fact, many activities in regular classroom practice can be called assessment. For instance, this takes place each time a teacher sets a task, when learners perform that task or respond to questions, and the teacher uses their responses to make decisions about the learners’ skills.

Seen from this perspective, most teachers would benefit from training in how to use the information gained from assessment more meaningfully, provide constructive feedback to learners, and to help learners to use this feedback to build on their performance.

Assessment literacy is not only for professional examiners and teachers, but also for school leaders.  By aligning the objectives of the course with formal and informal assessment, teaching/learning practices may be made more effective. There is a further argument that learners too can benefit from assessment literacy. Such ‘sustainable assessment’ should ‘move from the exclusive domain of assessors into the hands of learners’.[3] It is argued that assessment can be used to build learners’ skills for continuing or lifelong learning, thereby building a learning society.

How can you develop your own assessment literacy?

When I started out in my career, I thought of testing in more narrow terms as ‘assessment of learning’. Gaining a better understanding of the purposes of assessment, and the principles on which good assessment is based, has been a journey of discovery. Some of this learning happened during my own professional practice, through trial and error. At other points, my understanding of assessment was sharpened by formal training.

There are several avenues available for educators looking to boost their assessment literacy and here are some relevant ones:

Free British Council resources:

  1. Start by watching the free short, animated assessment videos from the British Council. These give you an insight into some of the main topics in language assessment. Use the accompanying worksheets and answer keys for deeper knowledge.
  2. Refer to the British Council’s free comprehensive assessment glossary, which consists of hundreds of definitions of terms to do with language assessment written by practitioners with language teachers in mind.

Books and publications: 

  1. Two practical guides are: Arthur Hughes’ ‘Testing for Language Teachers’, and Marge Scherer’s ‘On Formative Assessment: Readings from Educational Leadership’.
  2. Browse the British Council’s Assessment Research Publications. Other reports that detail the main issues include these  two from the Learning and Skills Development Agency and the OECD’s Centre for Educational Research and Innovation.

Paid association membership:  

  1. Become a member of TEASIG (the Testing, Evaluation and Assessment Special Interest Group) of IATEFL and connect with fellow professionals worldwide.

[1] Jones, C. (2005 p. 1). Assessment for Learning. London, UK: Learning and Skills Development Agency: accessed at http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/7800/1/AssessmentforLearning.pdf

[2] Coombe, C. (2018 p. 10). An A to Z of Second Language Assessment: How Language Teachers Understand Assessment Concepts. London, UK: British Council.

[3] David Boud (2010 p. 151). Sustainable Assessment: Rethinking assessment for the learning society. Studies in Continuing Education, 22:2, 151-167, DOI: 10.1080/713695728

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