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ACER Occasional Essays – August 2011

Assessing student learning: Why reform is overdue

Geoff N Masters if provided with appropriate learning opportunities

Australian Council for Educational Research and support.
Research also is making clear the enormous
Advances in our understanding of human variability in students’ levels of achievement
learning require new approaches to assessing and and progress. Children begin school with very
monitoring student learning. different social, cognitive, psychomotor and
language development. Many of these differences
Much assessment thinking has changed little do not disappear. In any given year of primary
over the past fifty years. The field continues to school, differences in reading and mathematics
be dominated by twentieth century introductory achievement are the equivalent of five or six years
textbook concepts, including such dichotomies as of school. And in some areas of learning and
formative versus summative assessment, criterion- development, variability appears to increase across
referenced versus norm-referenced testing, the school grades.
quantitative versus qualitative assessment, informal
versus formal assessment – distinctions that often We also know that, in mixed-ability classrooms,
hamper rather than promote clear thinking about students learn best when provided with learning
assessment. opportunities matched to their varying interests and
progress. Learning is maximised when tasks are
Assessment practice also has changed little over targeted just beyond individuals’ current levels of
this period. Traditional, high-stakes examinations attainment – in the region where success is possible,
continue to dominate what is taught and learnt in but often only with scaffolding and support.i
many of our schools and universities. Greater use
is now being made of promising new technologies, An implication of these observations is that
including banks of online assessment tasks, educational assessment is best conceptualised as a
computer adaptive tests and technology-based process of discovering where learners are in their
assessments of ‘new’ life skills and attributes. learning and development. Although it is common
However, while emerging technologies are capable to refer to the ‘multiple purposes’ of assessment,
of providing more innovative and informative assessment has only one fundamental purpose: to
explorations of student learning, much electronic establish where learners are in their progress at the
assessment remains pedestrian and underpinned by time of the assessment. This information can then
traditional assessment thinking. be interpreted and used in a variety of ways. For
example, students’ achievements can be interpreted
At the same time, progress in our understanding of by reference to the performances of other students
learning itself is challenging long-held assumptions nationally or internationally, by reference to
and pointing to the need for a paradigm shift in achievement expectations or standards, or by
assessment theory and practice. reference to past performances to study trends or
growth over time. The results of assessments can
For example, substantial progress has been made in be used to inform starting points for teaching, to
our understanding of human capacity for learning. evaluate the effectiveness of educational programs
It once was believed that individuals differed and interventions or to award qualifications. For
significantly in their capacity to learn. But research teaching purposes, it sometimes is desirable to
in neuroscience has shown how the plasticity of obtain more detailed information to diagnose
the brain enables almost all individuals to learn specific student misunderstandings or errors,
throughout the lifespan. This finding parallels the but once again, the single underlying purpose is
educational conclusion that, although students to discover where learners are in their learning.
are at different points in their learning and are Much unnecessary complexity has been introduced
progressing at different rates, almost all students into the assessment literature through failure to
are capable of successful learning if motivated and recognise and begin with this simple truth. © 2011 Australian Council for Educational Research

19 Prospect Hill Road, Camberwell, VIC 3124
Assessing student learningMasters

The process of establishing where students are in The onus is on students to learn this content and
their learning depends on a thorough understanding the role of assessment – whether during or upon
of the learning terrain through which they are completion of a course – is to judge how well they
progressing: typical paths of development; have done this. Conclusions about ‘how much’
sequences in which understandings normally are students have learnt commonly are expressed
established; and side-tracks in the form of common as percentages, which may then be converted
errors, learning difficulties and misunderstandings. to grades to convey the extent of each student’s
Assessment as the discovery of where students success (or failure).
are in their learning requires much more than
familiarity with the intended curriculum. It depends Under traditional approaches, it is common to
on expert understanding of how learning occurs treat ‘curriculum, teaching and assessment’ as
in a domain – a reference ‘map’ that is built from separate activities. The role of teachers is to teach
research and knowledge about learning itself.ii the curriculum, the role of students is to learn,
and the role of assessment is to judge how much
Essential to this approach to assessment is an of the taught content students have learnt. By
appreciation of learning as ongoing progress. At contrast, a view of assessment as professional
the heart of all educational effort is the intention investigation sees assessment as an integral part of
of student growth, development or improvement. good pedagogy. This view is consistent with the
Rather than being limited to specific courses, role of assessment in other professional work – for
semesters or years of school, the progress that example in medicine and psychology – where the
students make usually occurs incrementally purpose is not so much to judge as to understand
over extended periods of time. For example, in for the purpose of making informed decisions.
areas such as reading, mathematics and science,
progress typically occurs across the entire period Research into learning highlights the need for
of schooling. The role of assessment should be to investigative approaches to assessment. Learning
establish where students are on these long-term is rarely, if ever, a process of passively taking in
continua of learning and what progress they are and storing new information. Even from a very
making over time. young age, learning is a process of actively trying
to make sense of the world. Learners interpret what
To establish where students are in their learning, they see and hear in terms of what they already
evidence is required, usually in the form of know. They construct their own mental models and
observed performances on classroom activities or understandings which are sometimes inaccurate
assigned assessment tasks. However, individual or only partially correct. And it is clear that
tasks are rarely, if ever, of intrinsic importance. misconceptions, if not identified and addressed,
Students may never again have to read and answer can be significant obstacles to further learning.iii
questions about the particular piece of text or solve
the particular mathematics problems used in an Research also shows that students sometimes can
assessment. Specific tasks are merely convenient succeed on traditional forms of assessment while
but interchangeable vehicles for collecting holding fundamental misconceptions. For example,
evidence about what is really of interest – a physics students can sometimes recall formulae
student’s underlying reading ability, for example, and substitute numerical values correctly to answer
or level of achievement in an area of mathematics. examination questions while holding fundamental
And establishing where students are in their misunderstandings about relationships between
learning always involves an on-balance inference force and motion.
with an accompanying degree of uncertainty. Studies comparing experts and novices in various
This conceptualisation of assessment stands in fields show that what distinguishes experts from
stark contrast to the traditional use of assessment to novices is not only extensive knowledge of a
determine how much of what a teacher has taught field, but also the frames of reference that experts
each student has successfully learnt. Traditional have for organising and making sense of that
assessments are made not in relation to an knowledge. Experts have deep understandings
understanding of long-term learning progress, but of concepts, principles and big ideas in a field
in relation to a specific corpus of taught content. which allow them to see patterns in information

© 2011 Australian Council for Educational Research

19 Prospect Hill Road, Camberwell, VIC 3124
Masters Assessing student learning

and to transfer their knowledge to new and unseen personalise and focus their teaching efforts, often
contexts. by grouping students with similar needs.iv As noted
already, assessments of this kind depend on expert
The implications of these research findings are understandings of the relevant learning domain
that educational assessments must do more as well as professional skill in exploring learning
than establish whether students can reproduce progress.
what they have been taught, and teachers must
be more than deliverers of curriculum content Advances in technology are making it possible to
and judges of student success. The investigative incorporate professional knowledge of this kind
process of establishing where students are in into more sophisticated tools for investigating
their learning must include an exploration of learning. Rather than testing only factual and
students’ understandings of important concepts procedural knowledge, these tools explore student
and principles. An appreciation of learners’ thinking, including by testing hypotheses about
own mental models and misunderstandings can misunderstandings and gaps in an individual’s
provide important starting points for teaching (ie, learning. Intelligent forms of assessment in the
assessments for learning). Assessments of factual future will be less concerned with judging how
and procedural knowledge will continue to be much a student has learnt and more concerned with
important, but perhaps more important in the future diagnosing and under-standing the details of an
will be the assessment of students’ abilities to individual’s learning.
organise and use this knowledge and to apply their
understandings to the solution of complex, real- Research in neuroscience and cognitive
world problems. psychology also is revealing the important role of
emotions in learning.v People are more likely to
In the past, assessment methods often have learn and to remember if intrinsically motivated
been more concerned with judging success and emotionally engaged. In classroom settings,
and making reliable and fair comparisons of learning is promoted by ‘learning cultures’
student performances than with investigating and in which all students are expected to learn
understanding student learning. And the desire for successfully, are highly engaged and feel safe and
large-scale implementation under standardised supported in their learning. Conversely, negative
conditions, with a quick turnaround of results, emotions such as stress and fear of failure have
often has resulted in assessments requiring only been shown to impede learning and memory. In
that students reproduce what they have been taught classroom settings, these emotions can be the result
through the provision of ‘correct’ answers. of ‘performance cultures’ in which learning is
extrinsically motivated and students compete with
Some educators have reacted against assessments each other for
of this kind by arguing that ‘authentic’, in situ
assessments are always preferable to assessments Other research has shown the importance of
based on specially-designed assessment tasks, positive attitudes and beliefs about learning.
or that ‘school-based’ assessments made by Learners are more likely to learn successfully
classroom teachers are always preferable to if they believe that they are capable of learning
externally-developed assessments. But these are – in other words, if they have positive views of
over-reactions. When the purpose of assessment themselves as learners. They also must believe
is to explore and understand where students are in that effort will result in success. Effective learners
their learning, there must be a willingness to use are more likely to monitor their own learning,
the methods best able to provide this information, to recognise what they do not know and to be
whatever form they take. proactive in seeking out what they need to make
further progress. Learners are assisted in these
Day-to-day observations made by classroom processes by relevant and timely feedback that
teachers generally provide the richest information guides action and enables them to see the progress
for establishing where students are in their they are making over time.
learning. Ideally, teachers would have intimate and
precise knowledge of each student’s progress and These research findings relating to emotions,
learning needs and would use that knowledge to attitudes and beliefs have implications for how © 2011 Australian Council for Educational Research

19 Prospect Hill Road, Camberwell, VIC 3124
Assessing student learningMasters

assessments of learning are conducted and how the agricultural produce or the products of industrial
results of assessments are reported and used. manufacturing than for describing learning. The
educational challenge is to develop ways of
Some forms of assessment promote ‘performance’ reporting that show where students are in their
rather than ‘learning’ cultures. For example, long-term learning, what progress they are making
one-off, end-of-course examinations usually are (ie, assessments of learning) and what might be
designed to judge and compare students on the done to support further learning.
amount of course content they have learnt – often
for the purposes of ranking and selecting students Finally, the uses to which assessments are put also
for the next phase of education – rather than to can encourage ‘performance’ rather than ‘learning’
monitor and understand learning progress. In cultures. Assessments conducted to understand and
such assessments, learning can be driven more promote student learning can be undermined and
by external pressure for results than by curiosity distorted when the results of those assessments
and intrinsic motivation. And this pressure often are then used for other, unintended purposes. For
distorts teaching and learning by encouraging example, external attempts to use test results to
cramming and creating unacceptable levels of drive performance inevitably change classroom
stress for students and their families. teachers’ attitudes and behaviours. There is
growing evidence that the linking of rewards and
The paradigm shift now required in assessment is sanctions to test results not only fails to produce
from judging how much of a body of taught content the desired improvements, but also results in
students have successfully learnt to establishing a range of responses that are inconsistent with
where students are in their long-term learning and what we now know about effective teaching and
what progress they are making over time. learning.vii
For this reason, one-off, high-stakes assessment
events probably have a limited future in the
assessment of student learning. In some contexts, i Vygotsky, L (1978). Mind in society: The development of
there will continue to be a need to ensure that higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
minimum performance standards have been met, University Press.
but such assessments could be undertaken when ii Pellegrino, JW, Chudowsky, N, and Glaser, R (2001).
Knowing what students know: The science and design
learners feel ready to be assessed rather than in a of educational assessment, Washington, DC: National
single assessment event. Academy Press.
iii Bransford, JD, Brown, AL, & Cocking, RR (2000).
There are significant implications, too, for methods How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school:
of reporting and monitoring student learning. Expanded Edition. Washington, DC: National Research
Traditional reporting methods, such as percentages Council.

and grades, are more consistent with ‘performance’ iv Fullan, M, Hill, PW & Crevola, C (2006). Breakthrough.
Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
than ‘learning’ cultures. Percentages and grades
v Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
are used to describe how much of a body of taught (2007). Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning
content students have learnt. But these reporting science. Paris: OECD.
methods are incapable of showing learning vi Dweck, CS (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation,
progress, and indeed usually mask progress. personality and development. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology
A student who receives a ‘D’ year after year is
vii Hout, M & Elliott, S.W. (Eds.) (2011). Incentives and test-
given no sense of the progress they are actually based accountability in education. Washington, DC: The
making. And worse, they are likely to infer from National Academies Press.
this outmoded method of reporting that there is
something stable about their capacity to learn: they
are a ‘D’ student.
It sometimes is argued that students and parents
‘understand’ A to E grades; but they do not because
course grades usually do not represent consistent,
interpretable levels of achievement. Grading is
more appropriate for describing the quality of

© 2011 Australian Council for Educational Research

19 Prospect Hill Road, Camberwell, VIC 3124