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Delving deeper into the black box:formative assessment, inclusion andlearners on the autism spectrumJackie Ravet aa School of Education , University of Aberdeen , MacRobertBuilding, King's College, Aberdeen , Ab24 5UA , UKPublished online: 31 Aug 2012.
To cite this article: Jackie Ravet (2013) Delving deeper into the black box: formative assessment,inclusion and learners on the autism spectrum, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17:9,948-964, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2012.719552
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2012.719552
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Delving deeper into the black box: formative assessment, inclusionand learners on the autism spectrum
School of Education, University of Aberdeen, MacRobert Building, Kings College,Aberdeen Ab24 5UA, UK
(Received 10 May 2012; final version received 1 August 2012)
This paper explores the implementation of formative assessment through theautism lens in order to analyse why the process can be exclusionary for somelearners on the autism spectrum. The central thesis of the paper is that, whereteachers have no understanding of the autism learning style, they are likely torevert to a normative, majoritarian construction of learning. Two problems mayflow from this. First, majoritarian assumptions about learning could dominate theinferential process that is the foundation stone of formative assessment. Thiscould lead teachers to mis-read what is going on inside the heads of learners onthe autism spectrum, and cause them to make partial and inaccurate inferencesabout their learning. Second, majoritarian assumptions may also inform theinteractive process that underpins formative assessment. Social interaction can bechallenging for learners on the autism spectrum and can limit or exclude theirparticipation unless sensitive modifications are made to the social andcommunication environment. The case is, therefore, made for teacher awarenessof a minoritarian perspective that foregrounds knowledge and understanding ofthe autism learning style. Arguably, this knowledge and understanding couldenable teachers to adapt the formative assessment process so that it is moreeffective and inclusive for this group of learners.
Keywords: formative assessment; autism; inclusion; inferential process;communication
Research papers that inspire, transform and endure are rare. However, Inside the BlackBox (Black and Wiliam 1998a) is one such paper whose message about the fundamen-tal role and importance of formative assessment continues, years later, to stimulatedebate, sharpen policy and motivate classroom action. The approach set out in thispaper, and the exposition of it explored in subsequent work (Black et al. 2002, 2003,2006; Black 2007; Black and Wiliam 2009) has been widely welcomed and should con-tribute, in theory at least, to the emergence of a more holistic, learner-centred andresponsive process of assessment for learning across UK schools. Since the overarchingpurpose of formative assessment is to raise standards of learning, this should be goodnews for all pupils, parents and teachers.
However, since the publication of Black and Wiliams seminal paper, it has beensubject to extensive critique. Questions have focused on issues of definition and
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International Journal of Inclusive Education, 2013Vol. 17, No. 9, 948964, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13603116.2012.719552
interpretation, conceptual unity, contextualisation, evidence base and impact (Perre-noud 1998; Smith and Gorrard 2005; James 2008; Wiliam and Thompson 2007;Bennett 2009, 2011; Swaffield 2011). It has, therefore, become clear that, whilst thecentral ideas contained within the black box paper, and those that followed, are richwith potential, much has yet to be done to elucidate key ideas and concepts and toachieve effective and authentic implementation (Swaffield 2011).
This paper is positioned within the broad area of concern about links between for-mative assessment and inclusion that have arisen from research into effectiveness for alllearners (Martiniello 2008; EADSNE 2009; Bennett 2011; Hollenweger 2011).However, the specific focus is formative assessment and learners on the autism spec-trum (Wilkinson and Twist 2010). The central aim of the paper is to analyse why, incertain contexts, the implementation of formative assessment can effectively excludethis group of learners, and to make a contribution to the development of more effectiveand inclusive practice in this area. This is an analytic paper that presents the authorsviews and provides a conceptual framework underpinned by the authors classroomexperience, theoretical work and research with practitioners supporting individualson the autism spectrum.
To set the context for the analysis at the heart of the paper, we must first turn to theseminal work of Black and Wiliam. The influence of the inclusive environment on theimplementation of formative assessment will then be examined. The application ofBlack and Wiliams framework to learners with autism, the difficulties this raisesand how they might be addressed, constitutes the remainder of the paper. Anadapted framework is then tentatively proposed. It should be noted that the termlearner on the autism spectrum is used throughout this paper to refer to learnerswith a diagnosis of autism, Aspergers syndrome (AS) and high functioning autism(HFA) taught in mainstream classrooms.
Background: the work of Black and Wiliam
Black and Wiliam (1998a) make the claim that formative assessment is at the heart ofeffective teaching and fundamental to raising standards of learning in the classroom.Their focus is on the quality of what happens inside the black box their metaphorfor the classroom where, traditionally, teachers have been expected to raise standardsof childrens learning by enacting policy whilst negotiating a wide, complex, variedand, often, highly unpredictable range of pupil needs. Their main concern is that tea-chers are somehow expected to succeed in this endeavour without any direct helpwith this task (Black and Wiliam 1998a, 1). Their proposition is that formative assess-ment is the process whereby teachers can effectively modify their practice in responseto pupil learning, transforming what is happening inside the black box.
According to their definition, assessment:
refers to all those activities undertaken by teachers, and by their students in assessingthemselves, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teachingand learning activities in which they are engaged. Such assessment becomes formativeassessment when the evidence is actually used to adapt the teaching work to meet theneeds. (p. 2)
They go on to propose a set of principles to achieve deep and effective formativeassessment that emphasises the importance of opportunities for pupil interaction,
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teacher/pupil dialogue, high quality feedback to pupils and pupil self and peer assess-ment (Black and Wiliam 1998a). In a later paper, Black and Wiliam suggest that theseprinciples can be pursued using five key strategies and five activities (see Table 1) thatenable teachers to identify where learners are in their learning, where they are goingand what needs to be done to get them there (Black and Wiliam 2009, 7). Teachersare, therefore, the chief architects of the learning environment within this framewo