There are, to reduce all things to the simplistic, two purposes for formative assessment: when we assess what has been learned – allowing us to form justified pedagogical opinions about our (hopefully not hapless) students – we can either use the data we derive to evaluate their learning, thus far, or use it to target issues directly relevant to the students’ development, and from there facilitate their learning. That is, assessment of learning vs assessment for learning.
The concept is nothing new, of course, and has been explored quite thoroughly by D. Wiliam, amongst others. His work, however, largely focuses on young learners in predominantly state school contexts (here, I use ‘state school’ as an umbrella term, to include grammar schools, private schools, academies and others subsumed under the 4-18 educational settings frequented by PGCE trainee and graduate alike).
Does assessment for learning apply beyond this context? For me, the answer is a resounding yes. Are there limitations? Again, the yes is resounding. In ELT, certain classes, which have a firm foothold in the industry, are supposed to prepare learners to take and, with luck, pass such exams as the Cambridge suite (Starters to CPE), TOELF, IELTS, BULATS, TOEIC, etc. Irrespective of the myriad reasons learners may sign up for the courses, and regardless of their personal learning goals beyond the target exam, they generally have a single, shared goal in mind: pass the exam.
OK, that’s not strictly true: being the money-oriented, cash-driven, pound-of-flesh-for-Shylock-based system that it is, you don’t get far as an institution or school director if you’re not squeezing out a profit. Feel free to argue about the ethics, but for many, if not most, it’s basic business sense. If you’re not or near the top of the ELT industry, it takes a lot to pull in those pennies. Anyway, the implication of this is that, it being widely accepted that exam classes are a worthwhile cash cow, it’s not uncommon to find that exam classes replace general English classes. That is, for many learners the world over, getting from intermediate level to advanced level requires completion of an exam class.
So, to amend my previous statement, the goal of students in exam classes is either to
i.) pass the exam
ii.) pass the course
For those students aiming to pass the exam, there may be numerous motivating factors, including extrinsic (my parents want me to get the qualification), intrinsic (I enjoy studying for and passing exams), integrative (this exam will prepare me for social life at Harvard) or instrumental (I need the qualification to get into Microsoft). Each type of motivation will inevitably have implications for the student’s approach and attitude towards the class and their study.
For those students aiming to pass the course, motivation may come from a need or desire to advance to the next level within their institution’s system (it is entirely possible to avoid or fail an internationally recognised upper-intermediate exam, and progress to advanced level in a school), or a desire to continue studying English in a formal context. Concerning the former, if the motivation is simply to pass to the next level, it begs the question, what type of motivation are we facing? Perhaps, really, the student just wants to get out of the exam class and onto some proper learning.
The fact is, for whatever reason, and with a hundred fingers to be pointed, many students sign up for exam classes with little interest in what or how they will learn. They want grades, they want certificates. This isn’t something to wring our hands and cry over; it’s a fact of ELT, indeed a fact a life. Students will pass through our classes for all sorts of reasons, and it’s not for us to judge. It does, however, raise issues vis-a-vis assessment for learning.
A study by Butler found that feeding back assessment to learners via grades, either alongside, prior to or in place of comments, had a neutral to detrimental effect on the subsequent motivation and performance of those learners. Broadfoot et al, moreover, found that grades exacerbated competitiveness within the learning environment, ultimately leading to poorer overall performance from lower-achieving learners. Grades, arguably, should be avoided when it comes to formative assessment.
As previously explicated, many students go through the rigours of exam classes for the summative assessment grade. Taking grades out of the equation risks demotivating students, raising affective filter and adversely affected evaluation of your course (I spent 10 months preparing for the Cambridge CAE not knowing what grade I was expected to get).
This is just a window into the assessment for learning vs assessment of learning issue, and it is, in my view, one that needs attention. Are we forsaking our own integrity when we prioritise exam preparation over learning and development, even within an exam class? Ask any teacher their views on classes that see learners drudging their way through endless heaps of exam papers, and you’ll likely get a negative response. That’s to be expected: overt backwash is easy to spot and easy to criticise. But, go into many classrooms and you will see teachers prioritising correct answers over language development. Nevermind exploiting that student’s use of present perfect continuous to lead into a conversation well-suited to a dogme or task-based class, they gave the correct answer. Move on, move on! Covert backwash: the silent killer in the classroom. (And, at least with overt backwash, you’re getting direct exam practice!)
It’s not simply a case of putting assessment for learning above assessment of learning. Where, as in exam classes, the two clash, the teacher has to swallow their pride and prepare learners to get through the course, with a view to taking the exam. Nor, moreover, should the teacher feel (entirely) accountable when those students get the certificate without developing as much as they could have. There are, as stated, a hundred fingers to be pointed. One can be pointed at those institutions that don’t have alternatives to the exam class. One can be pointed at those in the industry that come up with assessment scales, such as Pearson’s Global scale and the CEFR, which put barriers and blockades in place across the sector. One can be pointed at school directors and centre managers who apply those scales in their own schools to the effect that grades become more important than learning English.
Does this mean we should scrap exam classes? Not at all: there is no obvious viable alternative, for starters, to prepare students for exams. Scrap the exams? Same issue applies, and it’s not for anyone to challenge those students who enter the exam just to get another grade. Institutions could, however, provide alternatives for those students not wanting to take exams, and consider moving away from the practice of categorising learners by level according to a scale. Trialling a cyclical-approach to the syllabus, as described by Richards, particularly an analytic one, could be a good place to start.