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AFL - more than just letting tests replace quizzes

I plan to create a series of posts that will help teachers better understand AFL so that they can apply AFL ideas into their classrooms. One way to do this is to define what AFL isn’t.

AFL isn’t replacing quiz grades with test grades. However, replacing quiz grades with test grades could be AFL – does that make sense? Here’s what I mean:

When a good AFL idea is shared with a faculty it is very easy for people to begin to see that idea as a definition of AFL instead of one example of how AFL ideas can be applied. With my own faculty at SHS and on this site I have recently shared an excellent example of how a teacher at SHS (or as it turns out, the majority of the SHS Math Department) is letting sections of unit tests replace grades earned on previous quizzes that correspond with that section of the test. (For more on that click here.) After a meeting with our school’s AFL committee I realized that based on that post and on other discussions we have had as a faculty, it would be easy to assume that our school was expecting teachers to apply AFL in this manner. In fact, it could be easy to assume that this example was what AFL was all about.

Such an assumption would be wrong. Not all classes assess in the same manner. Therefore, if this one example was AFL then AFL could not apply to all classes. The beauty of this example is that for this teacher, or these teachers, it is a way for their assessments to be used in an AFL manner. Before going any further, let’s look at a definition for AFL:

AFL is a planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status is used by teachers to adjust their ongoing instructional procedures or by students to adjust their current learning tactics. (James Popham)

Also, let’s remember something that has been stated repeatedly at Salem High School regarding AFL:

AFL is about how the results of the assessments will be used – not what the assessments are.

The example shared in my previous post is an example of AFL practices being put into place because it is an example of a process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students’ status is used by students to adjust their current learning tactics. The types of assessments being used – essentially traditional quizzes and tests – are nothing new or groundbreaking. What is exciting – what makes this an AFL example – is HOW these traditional assessments are being used.

Typically, when quizzes and tests are given they serve as a series of summative assessments. While in theory a student should use the results of the quizzes to study for the test – and many students have done just that – there is not a great incentive to do so. Even if the student improves on the test the quiz is still averaged into the grade. While we would like to think that the student would see the quiz as a learning experience, in many cases the quiz is viewed as simply another grade in the series of grades that determines the final average.

However, when the math teachers at SHS explain to their students that the test will be an opportunity to not only show that they have learned but also to change a previous low grade, the incentive to study for the test has been increased. As a parent I saw this occur this very morning when my daughter, who normally does not like to go into a classroom before school for extra help, went to her math teacher on her own volition this morning to get help. Kaitlin knows that she has an opportunity to raise her grade and is, therefore, working harder than normal. And with hard work comes learning.

Don’t be confused about the grade part either – AFL isn’t about making sure that a student receives a high grade. AFL is about making sure that a student learns. Of course, a higher grade will probably come as a result (unless the teacher’s grading practices are flawed), but the grade is secondary to learning. The beauty of the way the SHS math teachers are operating is that they are putting assessment data into the hands of students and then providing them with an incentive to use that data to change their learning tactics. That is why this is an AFL technique – because assessment is being used to encourage learning instead of being used primarily to create a grade.

Does that mean that all teachers must use this same strategy in order to be using AFL ideas? Of course not. What teachers need to do is to look at the assessments they are currently using and determine how the data that comes from them can be used by students or teachers (and it’s most powerful when it’s used by students) to enhance learning.

In future posts I will share some more ideas of how this can be done. But for now, remember: You don’t have to come up with new assessments to use AFL. Instead, you need to make sure that your assessments are used more to guide learning than to simply create a grade.

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Comment by Mark Ingerson on October 9, 2009 at 6:19am
Great points, Scott. I think there is a tendency when people are confronted with an idea like AFL that can be applied in many situations to instead take one or two possibilities and say "That is it! This is what they want me to do!" In this case, a teacher may be either happy or upset about this supposed requirement, but they miss the larger point: AFL can be frankly a myriad of possibilities in different classes and situations. Teachers need to see examples, but they need to be mindful that in their class there may be a different application.

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