A qualitative investigation of formative assessment in second-level education in Ireland

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Dennehy, Niamh Mary
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University College Cork
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This study investigates formative assessment as sociocultural practice in Irish post-primary education. It explores the enactment and experience of formative assessment in the classroom and argues that this social practice influences discourses about achievement, ability and identity in learning. Research in this area suggests that formative assessment has the potential to enhance students’ confidence, agency, self-esteem and participation in education as well as their capacity for autonomous and self-directed learning. However, the mechanisms, procedures and priorities in terms of curriculum and assessment are both explicit and implicit. Therefore, classroom assessment functions and practices are inextricably linked, not only with broader societal and cultural values about knowledge and the role of education in the life of the individual and society in general, but also with tacit understandings about how an individual’s ability, progress and achievement in education ought to be demonstrated, evaluated and affirmed. This multiple case-study uses a combination of discourse analysis and ethnographic tools to explore how a sociocultural perspective on assessment reveals ways in which patterns of power and control are established in the discourse of classroom formative assessment practice. This discourse shapes the positioning of, and identities available to, teachers and students in the assessment process. It also defines opportunities to participate and learn through formative assessment and the recognition of ability and achievement in education. The findings in this study reveal the interaction between formative assessment practices and teachers’ and students’ identity building, agency and relationships in the classroom as well as students’ evaluation of their own abilities and achievements in learning. Additionally, the findings illuminate the tacit assumptions about learning and achievement that influence classroom assessment practices and illustrate the discourse and cultural scripts around the kinds of knowledge that may afford or constrain authentic meaning-making and participation in formative assessment practices. The findings of this study are timely and significant in that formative assessment is now an increasingly important element of curriculum reform and a policy priority in post-primary education in Ireland. This study reveals both the complexity and the transformative potential of formative assessment and presents a unique and telling insight into classroom assessment as sociocultural practice. Throughout this study, I argue that we should consider assessment with students as a core guiding principle in the enactment of formative assessment in the classroom. This recognises the democratic value of student-centeredness in learning and the goal of education as the nurturing of a “mind to learn” (Wells and Claxton, 2002, p. 2).
Sociocultural theory , Formative assessment , Identity , Agency , Community of practice
Dennehy, N. M. 2018. A qualitative investigation of formative assessment in second-level education in Ireland. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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