Targeting literacy: can summative and formative assessment meet?

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The large percentages of students without basic skills have been quite alarming for educational systems around the world. International studies on student achievement, such as the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) or the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), highlight just how serious low literacy is, as it appears to concern more than 20% of the targeted populations. So, what can we do to make sure that all students succeed?

First step: assessment of learning

To reduce school failure and promote inclusiveness in education, I strongly believe that the early identification and monitoring of students “at risk” is critical. We often tend to think of national tests as having a summative orientation; yet, such tests can certainly be employed formatively to assist individuals’ learning by identifying needs and adapting teaching accordingly. Specifically, standardised literacy and numeracy tests can provide useful information on students’ progress. One example is the national Programme for Functional Literacy (PfL), developed and implemented in Cyprus, which identifies students “at risk” at two stages (Grades 3 and 6), so that these students are effectively supported in the educational system before they finish compulsory education, at the age of 15.

There are certainly theorists who argue against standardised literacy tests, and view them as reflecting reductionist approaches, often reducing the notion of literacy to a set of skills; a single test alone cannot measure the quality of a student’s overall learning. The PfL in Cyprus makes the need to support students “at risk” more explicit and raises the need for appropriately designed protocols and programmes that can enhance these students’ learning further.

Of course, the extent to which school practices in raising literacy are effective is another story. How national test results are adapted into actual literacy practices in school settings is highly dependent on teachers; authority over content and pedagogy certainly belongs to the teachers. In fact, I would argue that, despite seen as ‘professionally debilitating’ in the respective literature, standardised testing does not devalue teachers’ pedagogical skills. Teachers’ understandings of standardised national literacy testing are critical, as well as their professional reflections on the relevance and impact of this testing on classroom teaching and learning.

What next? Assessment for learning

Formative “assessment of learning” certainly leaves room for “assessment for learning” as well. As it is absolutely impossible for national tests to run beyond certain critical “stages” (e.g. more than once a year), the need emerges for continuing assessment practices that are related to everyday learning, such as student self-reflection, peer learning and teacher assessment. These seem to be easier now due to the emergence of new technologies and online tools (e.g. Mahara), that allow students to be involved in reflective learning, and teachers to know where students are in terms of their progress, also providing opportunities for continuous feedback. Such tools can help teachers work with the students more effectively, to identify learning gaps or misconceptions.

My recent involvement in the ATS2020 project, integrating formative and summative assessment through scaffolding tools in the context of transversal skills, demonstrated that ‘assessment for learning’ is not simple, though. E-journals and e-portfolios often require time and effort to integrate in classroom practices. Also, the need emerges for students to develop their understandings of evaluation as part of their learning path, and for teachers to be willing to engage in alternative forms of assessment. Despite challenges, participants found such processes exciting and motivating; as one of the teachers pointed out, “self-assessments helped them [the students] to improve in the next learning cycle”.

Learning what to value; valuing what we learn

To conclude, with 20% of students indicated as “at risk” of low literacy, the establishment of “assessment of learning” with a formative orientation, along with “assessment for learning”, forms a continuum that can help all students develop the necessary literacy skills for the 21st century.

In both approaches, it is important to build leadership capacity for teachers to examine data, critically discuss them and develop action plans based on them. As Ian Hardy wrote in an article in 2013, “what is counted, what is omitted, who is involved, and the categories and procedures developed and enacted all matter when seeking to understand the nature and effects of using numbers and statistics to make sense of the world”. This is true for assessment data beyond numbers, as well!

Dr Yiasemina Karagiorgi, Head of the Centre for Educational Research and Evaluation (CERE) of the Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture since 2011, has also worked as a school principal, teacher trainer and teacher. As Head of the CERE, she is currently supervising the implementation of national research and evaluation programmes, as well as international surveys such as TALIS, PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS, in Cyprus.