The Role of Learning Progressions in Classroom Assessment

The Role of Learning Progressions in Classroom Assessment

President's Message

Wilson, M. (2017, March). NCME Newsletter, 25(1), 2.

In the previous three president’s messages, I have (a) made a case for the importance of classroom assessment as a site for educational measurement research and development and as a principal context in which educational measurement can be a positive influence for educational success, (b) delineated two types of uses of summative assessment—information uses and signification uses, and (c) discussed the relationship between learning progressions and assessments (see the June 2016, September 2016, and December 2016 issues of the NCME Newsletter if you missed these).

In this message, I will focus on the importance of learning progressions for classroom assessment. Class discussion is a central component of classroom work, as well as classroom assessment. Success for a teacher in orchestrating this depends initially on the power of the opening questions or activities to provoke rich discussion but, then, secondly on the capacity of the teacher to listen, to interpret the responses, and to steer the discussion in the direction of the goals of the lesson, by summarizing, highlighting contradictions, or asking additional questions. To do this skillfully and productively, one essential ingredient for a teacher is to have in mind an underlying scheme of progression in the topic; such a scheme will guide the ways in which students’ contributions are summarized and highlighted in the teacher’s interventions and the orientation the teacher may provide by further suggestions, summaries, questions, and other activities.

This also applies to the formative role of feedback to individuals in supporting learning. Feedback, which can be verbal or written, should guide the learner, and require from the learner further work to improve on the work already accomplished. And here again a clear road map is required for the teacher: (a) to formulate a task or test so that the responses can provide evidence of learning progress, (b) to formulate helpful comments, tailored to the individual needs of each student, and (c) to give clear guidance on how to improve. This road map needs to give a view of the learning aims and of the steps along the route, or routes, that the student needs to take to get closer to that aim in light of his or her current position. Furthermore (for students of sufficient maturity), full student involvement requires that the students also have a grasp of the point they have reached along that route. The feedback must also give the student a clear aim for improvement, and if each student can locate this aim in a criterion-referenced framework, this can provide both orientation and motivation for improvement. With such an approach, each student will be competing against him- or herself, but may inevitably see him- or herself also in relation to peers and as competing with them.

At the end of any learning episode, there should be review, to check before moving on, perhaps using an end-of-topic test or other forms of assessment. Here there can be a dual purpose. One purpose is reflective, to both develop the learner’s overview of the progress made and to check for gaps or misconceptions—overall, to serve as a progress review en route rather than as a terminal assessment. The other purpose is prospective, to look forward to building up a record of achievement, which might be a preparation for, and/or a contribution to, summative assessment.

Thus, a well thought-out and evidence-based learning progression can (a) provide the essential basis for the setting of a teacher’s strategic aims, and for the planning of instruction, (b) serve as a guide for the on-the-fly decisions that have to be taken whilst in the midst of teaching and assessing, and (c) provide the criteria on which the work in formative and summative assessment should be based. Thus, the “vicious triangle” described in Part 1 of this message (see the President’s Message in the June 2016 issue of the newsletter) can be replaced by a better approach, where the curriculum is fashioned in terms of a model, grounded in evidence, of the paths through which learning typically proceeds as it aims for the desired targets. That is to say, the curriculum reflects and provides a strong model of progression in learning. This road map may then inform both pedagogy and the assessments (both formative and summative), in that an articulated set of tools can be tailored to stages in progression along the road, so that such tools will help to identify the region along the road where failure gives way to success.

To achieve this, the first issue to be addressed is to reform the interaction between curriculum and assessment, a reform that should be strongly driven by theories of student learning, but also strongly influenced by the observation and interpretation of student growth as represented in the analysis of student responses to classroom assessments. The second issue is to develop and use these road maps or learning progressions, which need to be formulated through professional judgment and the development of sound instructional practices, and confirmed up by data gathered through assessments and the interpretation of student responses.

I will save further discussion and exemplification of these points for the upcoming President’s Address at the 2017 NCME Breakfast and Business Meeting—I look forward to seeing you there!