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What difference can be made to teacher practice in assessment for learning?

Jenny Poskitt

Most people want students to learn as well as possible, while being fiscally and time efficient. The majority of teachers do the best they can. Yet some students and teachers appear to achieve higher levels and have a more positive view towards learning than others. We know educational achievement is dependent on a complex mix of factors inside and outside school. One of the school factors is teacher knowledge and use of assessment. What if we knew how to make a difference to teacher use of assessment?

Teachers reported high levels of knowledge in developing learning intentions and success criteria, student self-assessment, giving feedback and using achievement data to adjust classroom planning

A New Zealand study provides insights into this issue. Poskitt (2014) analysed an effective professional learning programme in assessment for learning. She found through collaborative involvement of school senior management, teachers, facilitators, Ministry of Education personnel and researchers, significant shifts occurred in teacher practice and student achievement. Over 96% of teacher participants reported confidence in using formative assessment practices in the classroom, and 80% reported confidence in improving learning for individual students. Teachers reported high levels of knowledge in developing learning intentions and success criteria, student self-assessment, giving feedback and using achievement data to adjust classroom planning. Classroom observations revealed increased decision making and teaching based on assessment information as well as incidences of constructing with students what expected learning would look like and how well the learning had been achieved. Student gains in writing achievement averaged four to five times the nationally expected shifts.

What made the difference? Several factors:

  1. alignment between political and educational aspirations (policy guidelines, official documents, Ministry of Education and teacher expectations were in accord regarding primacy of assessment for learning);
  2. collaboration across various layers of the educational system (Minister of Education, policy-makers, researchers, facilitators, teacher educators, teachers, unions); and
  3. optimal professional learning (PL) conditions (e.g. Timperley et al, 2007; sufficient, dedicated time for PL over a sustained period of time, multiple PL activities (e.g. peer observation and coaching), active teacher learning, content focus, specific learning goals, measurement of changes in student achievement, collaborative involvement of teachers, professional reading, active involvement of school principal, and use of assessment to focus teacher inquiry and teaching).

However, as is often the case in the hectic world of schools and education, the programme was so focused on making a difference to teacher and student learning that it neglected to communicate its importance and impact to the wider community.

Hargreaves (2000) and Carless (2005) argue that educators need to be actively engaged in the community and political arenas. Educators need to evoke public dialogue about assessment to inform, and be informed by, parents, the wider community, financiers and politicians. Without communicative partnership, educational policy is subject to the whims of international pressures and trends, and effective programmes such as this one cease to be funded and supported as the next straw (assessment for accountability) is grasped to solve societal ills. Effective practice and policy in assessment necessitates partnership within, across and beyond the education sector into the community and political realms if we are to build better understanding of assessment literacies as well as the role of assessment in learning, and thereby garner political support for focusing resources on what truly makes a difference to student learning.


Carless, D. (2005). Prospects for the implementation of assessment for learning. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policies & Practices, 12(1), 39-45.

Hargreaves, A. (2000). Four ages of professionalism and professional learning. Teachers and teaching: History and Practice, 6 (2), 151-182.

Poskitt, J. (2014). Transforming professional learning and practice in assessment for learning. The Curriculum Journal, 25 (4), 542-566.

Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional learning. Best evidence synthesis iteration [bes], 292. Wellington: Ministry of Education.