Te Arapiki Ako
"Towards better teaching & learning"

5. The role of assessment in strengthening literacy and numeracy of adults.

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Last updated 26 October 2012 15:30 by NZTecAdmin

Here are the detailed descriptions for the four key understandings in this area:

Key understanding 5.1

Research findings

Aikenhead (1997) identified three overarching assessment purposes (improving teaching and learning; systems accountability and reporting; lifelong learning) and identified the features of effective assessment that made the best fit within each category.

Many researchers and educators distinguish between summative (assessment of learning) and formative (assessment for learning) assessment, distinguished very simply by Kruidenier (2002) as assessment for accountability (summative) and assessment for instruction (formative). Other commentators refer to the difference between the kind of assessment that occurs at the end of a programme (summative) and the assessment that occurs throughout a programme of learning (formative).

Most of the research literature on assessment focuses on assessment for learning. For example, Linn and Millar (2005, cited in NZCER 2006, p22) suggest that "assessment is best viewed as a process of obtaining information on which to base educational decisions.”

Assessment seeks to answer the question, What are the learner’s current literacy and numeracy skills? This question can be viewed as both assessment for learning and assessment of learning. Accordingly, any type of assessment tool can be useful for either summative or formative assessment. The key is that the assessment should be fit for purpose (Derrick and Eccleston, 2008).

When the purpose of assessment is to improve learning, educators can select the assessment tools or procedures most likely to yield the specific kinds information that will indicate the direction and nature of the next teaching and learning steps.

Black and Wiliam (1998) asserted that "formative assessment is at the heart of effective teaching when assessment information is used to adapt instruction to meet individual learner’s needs (p1)". Such information gives both educator and learner feedback about how the learner is progressing towards their learning goals. Black and Wiliam (1998) found that formative assessment practices were associated with some of the largest gains in learner achievement reported for any educational interventions.

Furthermore, NRDC reported that “there are suggestions that formative assessment may be even more beneficial in adult learning than in other educational settings” (Carpentieri, 2008, p2).

After analysing many thousands of teaching interventions, Hattie (2003) concluded that feedback is the single most effective educational intervention. Hattie and Timperley (2007) describe four levels of feedback and explains how the level of feedback used can influence its effectiveness. The levels are:

  1. feedback about a task or product
  2. feedback about a process
  3. feedback aimed at self-regulation
  4. feedback directed at the “self”.

Feedback that supports self-regulation and feedback about process are the most powerful and most likely to lead to “deep processing and mastery of tasks" (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p.90-91). Feedback about performance on a task is powerful “when the task information subsequently is useful for improving strategy processing or enhancing self-regulation” (Hattie & Timperley, 2007, p.90). Feedback about the self or person is the least effective level.

As discussed by Black and Wiliam, Hattie and others, formative assessment gives learners the kind of information and support that “can help develop motivation, confidence and autonomy in learners” (Carpentieri, 2008, p3). Factors identified by the Assessment Reform Group (2002) that improved learner motivation included the development of learner confidence and the nurturing of self- assessment and self-regulation. Task- and process-related feedback shows learners how they can build on what they already know, and what they need to do to improve their learning.

As learners gain expertise in incorporating and using new information, they develop awareness of their own thinking processes. This awareness (metacognition) supports lifelong learning as learners develop strategies that help them apply knowledge independently in different ways and in different situations.

Lifelong learning is supported when learners “have the opportunity to be independent and self-regulating through setting their own learning goals, engaging in decisions relating to what they learn and how they learn, and where they are able to monitor their own progress and identify where they need assistance.” (NZCER, 2006, page 32)

Implications for practice

Assessment that supports teaching and learning:

  • includes assessment for specific purposes, with the adult learner and the educator both being clear about what those purposes are
  • is an integral part of effective teaching programmes as the basis of decision-making about “next step” instruction
  • frequently and consistently provides learners and educators with feedback to inform progress
  • provides information that helps learners to develop metacognition, self-regulation and independence

References: Aikenhead (1997); Assessment Reform Group (2002); Black and Wiliam (1998); Carpentieri (2008); Derrick and Ecclestone (2008); Ecclestone (2004); Hattie (2003); Hillier, (2002); Linn and Millar (2005); New Zealand Council for Education Research (2006)

Key Understanding 5.2

Research findings

“Assessment, as we conceive it, is inextricably bound up with the twin notions of quality information and defensible decision making” (Absolum et al, 2009, p33).

Assessment that is authentic and that provides information for learning is better able “to communicate to all stakeholders—adults, learners, teachers, policymakers, and the public—what tests are measuring, what the results of tests mean and how test results can be used as indications of program quality and as guides for educational improvement” (Stikes, nd, p5).

Research into programme improvement highlights the value of assessment information in improving instruction. Achievement data provides a measure of whether the learners are successfully meeting learning goals and this in turn provides information on the effectiveness of teaching programmes and other organisational practices: “achievement of student outcomes is the criterion for judging the effectiveness of all other program practices and components” (Bingman and Stein, 2001, p.23).

Educational organisations use information from assessment to determine the outcomes of literacy and numeracy programmes for adults to report against Key Performance Indicators and to inform planning.

“Assessment criteria need to be understandable, explicit and public. … Assessment criteria also need to be understandable to employers, and others in the outside world” (Brown, Race and Smith,1996, point 10).

If assessment is expected to provide credentials or count towards qualifications, accountability to those beyond the institution (for example, prospective employers) must be considered. There must be “mechanisms to ensure consistency of judgements and results need to be reported in a way that recognises the learner’s achievements and demonstrates what the learner knows and can do.” (Brown et all, 1996, cited in NZCER, 2006, p35)

Implications for practice

Assessment for accountability and reporting take into account the:

  • authenticity, reliability and validity of assessments
  • relationships between learner progress and programme effectiveness
  • needs of all stakeholders

References: Absolum (2009); Bingman and Stein (2001); Brown et al (1996); Stikes (n.d.)

Key understanding 5.3

Research findings

Adult learners bring a lifetime of lived experiences with them based on their culture, language and identity. Adults come to literacy instruction with an extensive knowledge base from a wide variety of experiences (Kruidenier, 2002).

Assessment that helps learners to articulate and demonstrate what they already know provides information that educators can use to help strengthen learners’ knowledge, skills and strategies, in ways that are socially and culturally, as well as educationally, appropriate and relevant for individual learners.

National programmes for literacy and numeracy education for adults in Australia, United States, United Kingdom and New Zealand stress the fact that “Many adult learners will have highly developed learning strategies … It is therefore important that learning activities be oriented towards valuing personal and cultural resources as well as negotiating the demands of [the] education and training systems” (National Reporting System, n.d., p4).

Kruidenier (2002) describes the various processes and components that are involved in reading and writing, and how adult learners may be at different stages of development.

Similarly in numeracy, learning “includes a wide range of developing skills and abilities, the fluency and independence with which the skills can be applied and the range of situations they can be applied to. Effective diagnostic assessment establishes where a learner is initially placed on the [learning] progression by identifying their current skills and understanding” (Thomas and Ward, 2009).

Assessment grounded in a learning framework helps educators and learners identify significant signposts in developing expertise in ways that can be made relevant to individual learners’ pathways. In addition, criterion-referenced measures focus on determining what an individual already knows and therefore what needs to be taught as opposed to an individual's standing relative to norms (Kruidenier 2002). “[T]he constructs that assessments are designed to measure should reflect broad-based agreement on what adults should know and be able to do” (Stikes, n.d., p2).

Frameworks for adult literacy and numeracy learning include the Equipped For the Future (EFF) Content Standards in the United States, the Australian National Reporting System and the Adult Learning Progressions in New Zealand. The EFF Content Standards, for example define the knowledge and skills adults need in order to successfully carry out their roles as parents and family members, citizens and community members, and workers (EFF n.d.).

The Learning Progressions for Adult Literacy and Learning Progressions for Adult Numeracy (Tertiary Education Commission, 2008a and 2008b) drew on the work of the National Institute for Literacy in the United States in which standards were developed to assess learning and identify next learning steps. “Next learning steps are clear because of the descriptive nature of the progressions” (NZCER, page 24).

Given that adult literacy and numeracy learners may have very different profiles, a range of assessment tools, tasks and procedures needs to be used depending on purpose, for example, how fine-grained the information about a learner’s knowledge and skills needs to be. No single assessment can provide all the information about a learner, and because adults may have negative experiences of assessment, any assessment may not yield the kind of information expected.

“One solution is to use multiple measures so you can look at each individual in different ways at different times. No single test provides a full picture of what a learner can do. … A combination of tests and other measures may be used to address your three broad purposes: initial planning, progress monitoring, and outcomes measurement” (McShane, 2005, p30). Cumming and Gal (2000) suggest that adult numeracy assessment should encompass the range of assessment forms being used in other educational settings including oral reports, group activities and portfolios.

Implications for practice

Effective teaching and learning practice builds on learner’s existing knowledge, skills and strategies. Educators demonstrate this when they:

  • acknowledge the knowledge and skills that all learners bring with them
  • base assessment on a framework (such as learning progressions) that makes the steps in developing expertise explicit as well as meaningful.
  • use a variety of assessment methods, tasks, and approaches that enable learners to demonstrate their existing knowledge and skills

References: Barton et al (2006); Cumming and Gal (2000); Gillespie (2002b); Ivanic et al (2006); Kruidenier (2002); McShane (2005); National Reporting System (n.d.); New Zealand Council for Educational Research (2006), Tertiary Education Commission, 2008a and 2008b) Thomas and Ward (2009)

Key understanding 5.4

Research findings

Adult learners develop their literacy and numeracy most effectively in contexts that have meaning and purpose, for example, when they need specific skills or knowledge in their roles as workers, learners, and family and community members. Similarly, when assessment uses familiar contexts, it is more likely that the problem (numeracy) or text and task (literacy) will make sense to learners, and they are able to demonstrate their literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills.

The Adult Literacy and Life Skills (ALL) survey uses contexts in the following categories (OECD n.d.):

  • Home and family
  • Health and safety
  • Community and citizenship
  • Consumer economics
  • Education and training
  • Work
  • Leisure and recreation

Using assessment grounded in a framework that is based on the development of real-life literacy and numeracy enables educators and adult learners to develop a problem-solving approach with the longer term goal to build, over time, the cognitive and metacognitive strategies that facilitate learning with understanding and transfer of learning from one context to another (EFF n.d.).

Instruction that develops metacognition aims to help learners understand how they can “actively construct and interpret knowledge by integrating new information and experiences into what they already know” (Mayer 1998, cited in Gillespie 2002b, p2). By becoming aware of their learning, adult learners are able to generalise what they know and are able to do in a specific context, and apply this in different contexts.

Effective assessment uses a range of contexts to give learners opportunities to demonstrate their ability to select knowledge, skills and strategies best suited to each context.

Implications for practice

Adult learners are better able to demonstrate their literacy and numeracy knowledge and skills when

  • assessment uses contexts that are familiar and meaningful to them
  • they are given opportunities to show how they can apply what they know and can do in different contexts.

References: Equipped For the Future (n.d.); Gillespie (2002c); Johnston (1995); Stikes (n.d.)


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