The Possibilities and Limitations of Assessment for Learning: Exploring the Theory of Formative Assessment and the Notion of “Closing the Learning Gap”

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 Black and Wiliam (1998a, 1998b) demonstrate that formative assessment is one of the most effective strategies for promoting student learning. Since the publication of their reviews, formative assessment has gained increasing international prominence in both policy and practice. <br> However, despite this early innovation, the theory and practice of formative assessment are currently at a crossroads. It is widely understood that problems emerge when formative assessment is being reduced to a mini-summative assessment or to a series of teaching techniques for coaching to improve grades and levels. <br> On the one hand, a serious threat to the effectiveness of formative assessment occurs when it is assimilated into larger accountability systems such as National Curriculum Assessment in England. On the other hand, a defense of formative assessment is offered by some researchers who suggest that the threat stems from misinterpretation of the evolved form of formative assessment.<br> In this paper, although I am alert to the rich potential of the evolved form of formative assessment, I suggest that the threat stems not from “misrepresentation” but that it exists in the original theoretical framework of Black and Wiliam and the early ARG definition of Assessment for Learning. I will illustrate that this type of formative assessment becomes “convergent assessment” (Torrance & Pryor, 1998) and identify the widespread notion of “closing the learning gap”(Sadler, 1989) as the mechanism of “convergent assessment”. I also claim that formative assessment characterised by “convergent assessment” can lead to the practice of “criteria compliance” (Torrance, 2007). Together these claims point towards the theoretical problems of the evolved form of formative assessment and lead to a discussion of the main dilemmas for formative assessment: the kind of learning that is taking place, the effects of explicit learning objectives, the tension of accountability pressure and high-stakes summative assessments. Finally, by applying the suggestions above, this paper provides a critical analysis of recent assessment policy in Japan, emphasizing criterion-referenced approach in classroom assessment and proposes a pathway for developing formative assessment further.


  • Educational Studies in Japan

    Educational Studies in Japan 10(0), 79-91, 2016

    Japanese Educational Research Association


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