From Testing to Productive Student Learning: Implementing Formative Assessment in Confucian-Heritage Settings
reviewed by Susan M. Brookhart - November 16, 2011
Title: From Testing to Productive Student Learning: Implementing Formative Assessment in Confucian-Heritage Settings
Author(s): David Carless
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415880823, Pages: 280, Year: 2010
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Most current work on formative assessment has been done in Anglophone settings. Prof. Carless lives and works in Hong Kong, which has a long history of heavy use of examinations, as do many other Confucian-heritage education systems. From this inherent dilemma arise the questions the author raises in his book. What is the role of context and culture in the implementation of formative assessment? Is it possible to broaden the meaning of formative assessment so it is accessible beyond Anglophone settings? Can looking at the relationships between formative and summative assessment across cultures enrich our theoretical understanding of what formative assessment is and how it functions?
From Testing to Productive Student Learning is a reasoned argument addressing these questions in a very readable and logical progression from a review of the global literature on formative assessment to cases of formative assessment worked out in research in classrooms in Hong Kong. This book is well organized and clear so a reader can follow right along and wants to do so.
Chapter 1 sets up the dilemma described above and the aims of the book in this regard. A literature review follows, summarizing currently accepted definitions of formative assessment, consensus on the types of strategies that comprise formative assessment practice, and the learning theories behind these. As someone who has read and written in this literature for over 20 years, this reviewer is comfortable saying that the literature reviewed is the right stuff, and the foundation that this chapter sets is solid. Prof. Carless does indeed show us how formative assessment is currently understood and at the same time show us that this understanding is based mainly in writings from Anglophone educational cultures. Finally, Chapter 1 ends with descriptions of the authors own research projects, which later in the book will suggest ways that formative assessment can be broadened to include non-Anglophone educational cultures.
Chapter 2 examines the relationship between formative and summative assessment. In this book, such an examination constitutes much more than an extension of the literature review. Understanding the relationship between formative and summative assessment is critical to the question of how formative assessment can be understood in cultures where summative assessment has been so dominant. Again, the literature selected for review is spot on. Based on research with Hong Kong teachers, Prof. Carless suggests that the formative use of summative assessment, which answers to the none-too-delightful acronym FUST, is a productive way to focus student learning that makes sense in an examination-oriented culture.
Chapter 3 reviews the history of testing as a means of competition and social control. In addition, of course, to continuing the literature review, this chapter adds a piece to the case being built. The Chinese imperial examination system, the oldest examination system in the world, has had some notable effects, and these effects still stand in Confucian heritage systems. The system set up a culture in which memorization, competition, and scoring well on final, summative assessments became the goals of schooling. This chapter is even-handedly written and well documented. It would have been easy, in a book about formative assessment, to set up the Chinese examination systems legacy as a straw person to knock down, and Prof. Carless did not do this. Instead, as we read we see how entrenched these ideas are, and why. After this chapter, readers see clearly why exporting formative assessment to Confucian heritage systems, asking for whole-cloth adoption, will not be a productive way forward.
Chapter 4 is about the special case of Hong Kong, which has been influenced by the Chinese system and Confucianism but which has social and contextual aspects of its own, as well. Diligence and hard work are values for students as well as their teachers. Parents support education and often send their students to tutorial schools. Prof. Carless describes the language, curriculum, and assessment in Hong Kong schools. He concludes that the main challenges to formative assessment in Hong Kong are the longstanding emphasis on summative assessment and on performance rather than mastery, and teachers limited understanding of formative assessment. These challenges set the stage for Chapter 5 because they leave the reader asking: Can formative assessment be done at all in the face of these challenges?
The answer is Yes, at least somewhat. Chapter 5 introduces the terms restricted and extended formative assessment, defines and describes them according to the literature, and relates them to the contextual factors the book has been dealing with all along. The chapter analyzes the factors that are known to inhibit or facilitate formative assessment, and ends up not only contributing to theory about formative assessment but making the case that there is a kind of formative assessment (restricted) that does have a chance of implementation in Hong Kong and other Confucian heritage settings.
Chapters 6 and 7 present evidence from the author and his colleagues work in Hong Kong classrooms about the implementation and effectiveness of two restricted forms of formative assessment. These are FUST (Chapter 6) and peer assessment (Chapter 7), respectively. They fit, in a sense, in the examination-dominated culture because, in addition to fostering student learning, they also do lead to clearly enhanced performance on summative assessment. The pressure to succeed on summative tests is still there, but a light breeze of mastery puffs along with the heavy wind of performance. The students can succeed and learn at the same time.
Chapter 8 continues with descriptions from the author and his colleagues research, this time focusing on the teacher change required for promoting educational reform, and assessment reform in particular, in Hong Kong. Prof. Carless describes changes, tensions, and residual issues for key teachers involved in the Hong Kong formative assessment projects, illustrating them with the teachers own words from study data. Having now considered the formative assessment literature and theory (Chapters 1-2, 5), the Confucian and Hong Kong context (Chapters 3-4), and several projects that have had at least mixed results and many positive developments for both students (Chapters 6-7) and teachers (Chapter 8), Prof. Carless has answered his theme question.
Yes, formative assessment can be broadened and implemented in Confucian heritage systems, especially using the restricted methods of FUST and peer assessment. Chapter 9 summarizes and consolidates this conclusion, ending with suggestions for future research and future challenges that must be met. The reader is left feeling enlightened, but in the sense of fortified for a long journey yet to be taken rather than satisfied after a long journey ended. This reviewer thinks that is exactly where Prof. Carless means his readers to be and where he is himself. There is work to be done, and reading this book will help anyone who wants to do it.