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The role of assessment literacy in teacher professional development

Written by: Ngozi Oguledo
9 min read

Teachers have a responsibility to impart knowledge to students that can be applied later in life. However, this knowledge may not always be effectively transferred to students. Assessment, then, becomes an integral part of teaching and learning, as it helps to ascertain that a learning process has occurred. It acts not only as a student evaluation tool, but as a teacher evaluation tool. To identify gaps in their pedagogical knowledge, teachers must be able to effectively assess themselves.

Teachers as professionals

Teachers require a sound educational background, supported with good pedagogical knowledge, to transfer knowledge to students. According to Tobias and Baffert (2010, p. 8): ‘teaching involves the mastery over complex bodies of knowledge, licensure by a legitimate authority, renewal through continual education, and responsibility for young, vulnerable minds’. The acquisition of such a level of complex skills and knowledge, deemed fit for a professional, is a long and continuous process (Ingersoll and Perda, 2008), and so should be integral to teaching.

If learning is considered to be impossible without some form of continual assessment (Absolum, 2011), then it is rational to suggest that teachers’ assessment of their teaching practices and knowledge is pivotal to the development of effective teaching and learning strategies. This implies that the development of teachers’ knowledge base with the view to improve teaching cannot be successfully accomplished without teachers reviewing their practices. For this reason, enhancing teachers’ assessment skills should be one of the fundamental tools for teacher development.

Assessment literacy and teachers’ professional development

Curriculum, assessment and instruction are closely involved in the process of effective learning (Pellegrino et al., 2001). Assessment as part of the triad involves the design, gathering and review of learning evidence, and the utilisation of the outcome to make educational decisions (Brown, 2018). Given the crucial role of assessment in education, assessment literacy is an essential tool for teachers. Assessment literacy is the ability to comprehend the different assessment concepts, processes and their purposes, and to use them in making informed educational decisions (Popham 2011). To be an assessment-literate teacher entails being knowledgeable of, and competent in, the use of assessment. Such knowledge, as Abell and Siegel (2011) outline in their assessment literacy model, includes the knowledge of why we assess, what to assess, how to assess, and how to use assessment information.

If teaching is considered as an evolving practice, with students’ needs changing, then there is a constant need for teachers to reflect on their assessment knowledge and skills. As Xu and Brown (2016, p. 159) suggest, ‘assessment literate teachers are those who constantly reflect on their assessment practice, participate in professional activities concerning assessment in communities, engage in professional conversations about assessment, self-interrogate their conceptions of assessment and seek for resources to gain a renewed understanding of assessment and their own roles as assessors’. Such teachers are more likely to make better educational decisions, as they are more informed on the basic ideas and practices that play a key role in such decision-making (Popham, 2018). This will result in a better teaching experience for them and a positive effect on their students’ learning.

Although the resultant effect is on students, the assessment literacy required will vary when teachers are assessing students and when they are assessing themselves. The knowledge of assessment purposes, strategies and requirements will differ. This explains why it is logical to propose that effective teacher development should include the enhancement of teachers’ assessment literacy, both as an educator and as a learner. This is crucial, as an absence of assessment literacy can be seen as a form of ‘professional suicide’ (Popham, 2011, p. 269). In such a situation, teachers are involved in assessment practices that are good tick-box activities with no real positive effect on students and teachers. The effects that predominate are those that impact on workload and push teachers to regard assessment as an unnecessary tool.

Developing assessment literacy of teachers as educators

As an educator, selecting and applying the most appropriate assessment activity in any given scenario can become a limiting factor in effective teaching and learning, especially in a system where curriculum and assessment evolve. The evolution results in a repertoire of assessment practices – for instance, exit cards, using test results to generate formative feedback – which, when ill-implemented, will not yield a positive effect. A poorly performed assessment would inhibit effective teaching and learning (Pellegrino, 2013), and this would be influenced by the teachers’ knowledge of assessment. A good level of assessment literacy is paramount to a teacher’s ability to unravel misconceptions and discrepancies in knowledge acquisition among students. Students’ learning and achievement are positively influenced by the teacher’s level of assessment literacy, as enhanced assessment literacy begets better assessment processes, which results in more effective learning for students (White, 2009). On these grounds, continual development programmes should consider the enhancement of teachers’ assessment literacy as educators.

Although teachers are exposed to assessment knowledge during their initial training programme, the periodical changes in curriculum and assessment initiate the need to upskill them. A teacher training programme will at best prepare teachers to begin teaching (Zeichner and Yan Liu, 2010), without necessarily catering to the demands of the potential daily and seasonal changes. Besides, there is evidence to suggest that teachers acquire more knowledge on assessment through in-school practical experiences rather than the initial teacher training programmes (Siegel and Wissehr, 2011). The practical experience allows them to contextualise the knowledge gained during the training in an authentic setting, and provides the opportunity to collaborate with a more assessment-literate practitioner.

To develop teachers’ assessment literacy, opportunities should be provided for the key elements of assessment to be explored. These include:

  • Platform to enhance assessment know-how. Generic and subject-based assessment-themed CPD opportunities should be made more available in schools. Training events, such as twilight sessions, will provide a platform for the different elements of assessment to be explored and for schools to address their assessment needs through the professional development of teachers. In addition, suitable atmospheres for discourse on teachers’ assessment beliefs will be created. This is crucial, as CPD activities are more likely to influence school practices if they tackle ‘pre-existing conflict’ in the context applicable to the participants, and this impact increases when the ideas promoted are tailored to the school priorities (Bennett et al., 2010, p. 26).
  • Platform to reflect on assessment concepts. Opportunities to engage in assessment-related activities, such as moderation of assessed work, development of assessment tasks, assessment criteria and rubrics, should be made more available to teachers in schools. Teachers need to understand their role as assessors and the different purposes of assessment, and these events can inevitably provide the platform for this. Exposure to such activities allows teachers to engage in dialogue about their assessment practices, reflect on the variety of assessment systems, and better understand their conception of assessment (Xu and Brown, 2016). This is vital, as teachers’ conception of assessment influences their assessment practices (Brown, 2011).
  • Platform to disseminate assessment-related bites. Periodical changes in the educational system will often have an effect on assessment. Equally, current research findings may provide evidence that informs practice. For this reason, opportunities are required to disseminate assessment updates and relevant research bites and share good assessment practices in schools. Such avenues can come in the form of the teaching and learning (T&L) newsletter, T&L brief or T&L board. This can also include journal clubs or discussion forums where professional discourse is carried out. These avenues will provide the source of information that would help to promote the application of evidence-informed practices in schools. 

Developing assessment literacy of teachers as learners

Variations often exist in the subject-matter knowledge that teachers have to deliver, which leads to distinctions in the allied pedagogical-content knowledge and skills required to deliver it effectively. Essentially, this highlights the need for teacher CPD. To succeed in any aspect of teaching, a good reflection of the area needs to be carried out (McGregor, 2011). The process of understanding and enhancing one’s teaching has to start from self-reflection, as the ‘know how’ knowledge cannot only be gained from the experience of others (Zeichner and Yan Liu, 2010). In other words, to effectively improve their pedagogy, teachers need to engage in self-regulated learning. Self-assessment is an essential component of self-regulation, which is closely linked to achievement (Andrade and Valtcheva, 2009). For this reason, teachers require good self-assessment skills, which will allow them to effectively evaluate their pedagogy with the view to improving their teaching experience and the resultant students’ learning experiences. Opportunities to develop teachers’ self-assessment skills in schools include:

  • An engagement in self-assessment prompted by one’s experience. This can consist of opportunities for teachers to observe their own lessons using videos, and analyse and reflect on their findings.
  • An engagement in self-assessment prompted by external observations. Such opportunities can include time for informal peer observation, both for the observer and the observed, supplemented by post-observation reflection. This is vital, as the self-regulatory activities of a learner are likely to increase and enhance learning when self-assessment is supported by external assessors’ feedback in a similar context (Dinsmore and Wilson, 2016). In other words, such opportunities can provide a more conducive environment for discourse on pedagogy, thereby allowing teachers’ conceptions of teaching and learning to be reviewed. As Biesta et al. (2015, p. 638) argue, ‘access to wider discourses about teaching and education would provide teachers with a perspective on the beliefs they and their colleagues hold, and would provide a horizon against which such beliefs can be evaluated’.

Conclusion

Assessment is an integral part of teaching and learning. Teachers, as part of their role, have to ascertain whether learning has occurred and use the information gathered to make an informed decision. The ability for an individual to effectively assess in different scenarios is the key to assessment literacy. A good level of teacher assessment literacy can aid the assessment of students as well as teacher self-assessment. Both result in the improvement of the overall learning experience for both students and teachers.

References

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