Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment

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Firm evidence shows that formative assessment is an essential component of classroom work and that its development can raise standards of achievement. Mr. Black and Mr. Wiliam point out: "A focus on standards and accountability that ignores the processes of teaching and learning in classrooms will not provide the direction that teachers need in their quest to improve." How can anyone be sure that a particular set of new inputs will produce better outputs if we don't at least study what happens inside the classroom? And why is it that most reform initiatives are not aimed at giving direct help and support to the work of teachers in classrooms? It is at least possible that some changes in the inputs may be counterproductive and make it harder for teachers to raise standards. Also, it seems strange, even unfair, to leave the most difficult piece of the standards-raising puzzle entirely to teachers. If there are ways in which policy makers and others can give direct help and support to the everyday classroom task of achieving better learning, then surely these ways ought to be pursued vigorously.

This article focuses on one aspect of teaching: formative assessment. But we will show that this feature is at the heart of effective teaching. There are three important questions about this process that we seek to answer: Is there evidence that improving formative assessment raises standards?; Is there evidence that there is room for improvement?; Is there evidence about how to improve formative assessment?

The authors have conducted an extensive survey of the research literature through the past nine years' worth of more than 160 journals, and have studied earlier reviews of research. This process yielded about 580 articles or chapters to study. A lengthy review, using material from 250 of these sources, was published in a special issue of the journal Assessment in Education, together with comments on our work by leading educational experts from Australia, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Lesotho, and the U.S.

The main plank of the argument is that standards can be raised only by changes that are put into direct effect by teachers and pupils in classrooms. There is a body of firm evidence that formative assessment is an essential component of classroom work and that its development can raise standards of achievement. National and state policy makers should grasp this opportunity and take the lead in this direction.

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