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Improving student achievement through Assessment for Learning

Toni Glasson
Toni Glasson is an education consultant and a former project manager for the Curriculum Corporation Assessment for Learning website.

This article is an extract from the Introduction to Improving Student Achievement: A practical guide to Assessment for Learning, by Toni Glasson, published by Curriculum Corporation, 2008.


The role of teachers in relation to classroom assessment used to go something like this: we graded our students according to whether or not they had passed or failed, and such information was recorded first in our markbooks and then in the students’ reports. Our role was one in which we made judgments about our students’ achievements and, on the basis of those judgments, essentially divided our classes into winners and losers. The basis for those judgments was sometimes difficult to pin down. Somehow we ‘knew’, if we were experienced, when a performance was satisfactory and when it was not.

The giving of marks and the grading function are overemphasized, while the giving of useful advice and the learning function are underemphasized. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

Now, in an era in which curriculum documents describe specific ‘standards’ – and national testing programs ostensibly evaluate student performance against those standards – the teachers’ role is one in which they are asked to make sure that increasingly greater numbers of their students are able to demonstrate the ability to meet those standards.

How is this to be done?

The answer lies, to a significant extent, in changing the way in which we regard and use assessment in the classroom.

In itself, this sounds quite simple, but in reality it requires, for some of us, a major shift in thinking and, indeed, in the very essence of our attitudes to teaching.

If the teacher assumes that knowledge is to be transmitted and learned, that understanding will develop later, and that clarity of exposition accompanied by rewards for patient reception are the essentials of good teaching, then formative assessment is hardly necessary. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

The research

In the UK, Professors Black and Wiliam examined the main findings of 250 assessment articles (covering nine years of international research) and as a result published Assessment and Classroom Learning (1998), later summarized as Inside the Black Box. This article both clarified and confirmed the powerful role played by classroom assessment in helping to raise standards and improve student learning.

They argued that the use of formative assessment in the classroom could be proven to lead to improved student performance. They compared the use of formative assessment with other educational innovations and concluded, from their research, that it achieved an effect size of 0.4 – 0.7%.

For research purposes, learning gains … are measured by comparing the average improvements in the test scores of pupils involved in an innovation with the range of scores that are found for typical groups of pupils on these same tests. The ratio of the former divided by the latter is known as the effect size. Typical effect sizes of the formative assessment experiments were between 0.4 and 0.7. These effect sizes are larger than most of those found for educational interventions. (Black & Wiliam, 1998)

Translated into layman’s terms, this effectively means, for example, that the consistent use of formative assessment practices could improve performances of students in the last two years of schooling by between one and two grades.

These findings have been confirmed by subsequent research – Meisels, Atkins-Burnett, Xue and Bickel (2003), Rodriguez (2005), OECD (2005). Perhaps of most significance has been the discovery that the use of formative assessment practices leads, in particular, to increased improvement for low-achieving students. For administrators, both at school and system level, who are keen to improve statistics denoting achievement, this is important information.

Schools which use formative assessment show not only general gains in academic achievement, but also particularly high gains for previously underachieving students. Attendance and retention of learning are also improved, as well as the quality of students’ work. (OECD, Policy Brief, November 2005)

Formative assessment and Assessment for Learning

Before we go on to look at Assessment for Learning in more detail, it is probably important to examine the terms commonly used to describe forms of assessment.

Summative assessment is a term used to refer to the kind of assessment that is associated with accountability and the need to determine a student's level of performance on a specific task or at the conclusion of a unit of teaching and learning. The information gained from this kind of assessment is often used in reporting to parents. Summative assessment, of course, is also the assessment associated with statewide and national testing.

Traditionally, formative assessment – making use of information gained from assessment to improve student performance – has in fact been formative for the teachers rather than the students. Often the information about student performance gained from summative assessments (usually tests) has been used by teachers to make changes to curriculum for the next year. It has not necessarily been used to improve the learning of the students who provided the information. This is particularly the case in relation to the information derived from statewide and national testing, where changes are made to classroom teaching as a result of the school’s underachieving performance in a particular aspect of the test – with the aim of achieving better results in the following year.

The modern ‘take’ on formative assessment seeks to address this deficiency, and the re-naming of formative assessment as Assessment for Learning goes some way towards focusing attention on the purpose of formative assessment:

Assessment for learning is the process of seeking and interpreting evidence for use by learners and their teachers to decide where the learners are in their learning, where they need to go and how best to get there. (Assessment Reform Group, 2002)

The term, assessment of learning, makes explicit the purpose of summative assessment – ie the intention is to evaluate what the student has learned.

Some educationalists, in particular the Canadian, Lorna Earl (2003), have differentiated between the roles of the teacher and the student under the Assessment for Learning umbrella and introduced a further term – assessment as learning. Assessment as learning essentially describes the role played by the student, while Assessment for Learning focuses on the role of the teacher.

However, in this book the broader term, Assessment for Learning, is the one that we will use, and under this term we will discuss those aspects of formative assessment that relate to the roles of both student and teacher. We will do this because

  • the majority of the research uses the term in this way
  • the use of the single term is less confusing for teachers
  • it confirms that the role of assessment is an integrated one, involving both teachers and students in a mutually responsible, symbiotic and potentially productive relationship.

The Assessment for Learning strategies

The research (Black and Wiliam, 1998, 1999) has identified the following strategies as ones which, when implemented in the classroom in a consistent manner, can lead to improved student performance.

The sharing of learning intentions and success criteria

This strategy asks teachers to tell students what it is they are expected to learn (the learning intention) and to share with them the criteria that will, if met by the students, demonstrate that learning has taken place.

Strategic questioning

This refers to the careful and deliberate use of questioning in order to elicit information from students about what it is that they know and can do, and the formative use of that information to shape future teaching and learning.

Effective feedback

Feedback which is effective is based on learning intentions and success criteria and provides students with information not only about what they have done well and where they need to improve, but also information about how they can improve their performance. Effective feedback avoids comparison with other students’ performances, and can come not only from the teacher, but also from peers.

Student self-assessment

This focuses on encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning, to identify their strengths and weaknesses, to be aware of how they learn, to set learning targets, to act on feedback and to be able to make judgments about the quality of their work in relation to success criteria.

Making formative use of summative assessment

Summative assessment activities or tasks not only provide evaluative information about the student but can also provide information that can be used in a formative way. This strategy encourages teachers to be aware of the formative possibilities of summative assessment – before, after and during the assessment event.

The purpose of this book

This book is an attempt to bring together the experiences and research of a range of people in order to share the wide variety of Assessment for Learning strategies that have been identified and implemented by many teachers.

The book will explore each of these strategies in some detail, provide examples from the classroom and make suggestions for teachers’ further professional learning. This last element is of key significance.

Black and Wiliam (1998) emphasise that although it is clear that Assessment for Learning can lead to improved student learning and achievement, its implementation by teachers in the classroom is not a ‘simple matter’ and ‘there is no quick fix that can alter existing practice by promising rapid rewards’.

Indeed, the experience of teachers who have introduced Assessment for Learning strategies into their classrooms indicates that it is a process that is best undertaken slowly, allowing time for experimentation and consideration.

Improving Student Achievement: A Practical Guide to Assessment for Learning is available from Curriculum Corporation: sales@curriculum.edu.au 



Assessment Reform Group 2002, Assessment for Learning: 10 Principles – Research-based Principles to Guide Classroom Practice, Assessment Reform Group, United Kingdom.

Black, P & Wiliam, D 1998, Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment, School of Education, King’s College, London.

––––1999, ‘Assessment and Classroom Learning’, Education: Principles, Policy and Practice, March, vol 5, no 1, pp 7–74.

Earl, L 2003, Assessment As Learning: Using Classroom Assessment to Maximize Student Learning, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA. 

Meisels, S, Atkins-Burnett, S, Xue, Y & Bickel, D February 2003, ‘Creating a System of Accountability: The impact of instructional assessment on elementary children’s achievement scores’, Educational Policy Analysis Archives, vol 11, no 9, College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ.

OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) 2005, 'Formative Assessment in Secondary Classrooms', Policy Brief, November.

Rodriguez, M 2004, 'The Role of Classroom Assessment in Student Performance on TIMSS', Applied Measurement in Education, vol 17, no 1, pp 1–24.




Subject Headings

Educational evaluation
Teaching and learning