Assessment, Leadership, Policy, Teaching

Assessment for Learning across Canada

Where we’ve been and where we’re going

Assessment for Learning (AFL), sometimes referred to as formative assessment, has been an informal activity in Canadian classrooms for a long time. It became a more formal practice more than 40 years ago, when Bloom, Hastings and Madaus wrote a book entitled Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student Learning.1 In it, they highlighted how assessment was critical to student learning and classroom teaching and how evaluation data could be used to improve and extend student development and achievement. Not surprisingly, many educators and researchers began to advocate for educationally useful assessments. Likewise, the scholarly community began to focus on the value of everyday classroom assessment as a critical element in helping students learn.

The seminal work of Black and Wiliam2 provided the final stimulus to cement the importance of formative assessment. By synthesizing over 250 studies, these researchers found that the intentional use of assessment in the classroom promoted learning and improved student achievement. The Assessment Reform Group in England named assessment-based teaching assessment for learning (AFL), and described it as “the single most powerful tool we have for raising standards and empowering life-long learning.”3

Researchers, teachers, and policy makers now use the terms formative assessment and assessment for learning routinely – and often interchangeably, despite some subtle but important distinctions. AFL has permeated practice and policy spheres around the world, and there is increasing convergence on its core principles. AFL has made its way into policy frameworks throughout Canada (e.g. Ontario’s Growing Success4 and Manitoba’s Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind5). The research base supporting AFL has provided the stimulus and rationale for this re-envisioning of contemporary classroom assessment.

This article chronicles the emergence of AFL within Canadian borders. The authors also discuss the implications of recent policy shifts in assessment with the ongoing need to support teacher learning in the area of assessment.

Early assessment in Canada

Each of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories is responsible for designing its own assessment policies to support and monitor student learning. Prior to 2000, many provincial assessment policies emphasized the traditional “diagnostic–formative–summative” assessment sequence. In this sequence, teachers used diagnostic and formative assessments to improve and tailor their instruction, while summative assessments were used to publically report on student achievement.

During the 1980s and 90s, diagnostic, formative, and summative assessments were valued differently across Canada, depending upon the province’s curricular orientation and testing program. In provinces with a longstanding history of large-scale testing (e.g. Alberta and British Columbia), summative classroom assessments were highly valued and regulated in relation to provincial test content and criteria. Provinces with minimal large-scale testing, such as Manitoba, Ontario, and Prince Edward Island, had a more balanced orientation toward formative and summative assessments. In these provinces, a holistic curricular orientation was used that involved less rigid provincial expectations, a constructivist learning approach, and a commitment to teaching toward the whole child. Formative assessment was seen as a tool to help inform teachers’ instructional practices and promote differentiated teaching for individual student learning.

In the late 1990s, calls began surfacing across Canada for a more unified educational standard coupled with greater public accountability for student learning, especially in provinces without large-scale testing programs. For example, the landmark 1994 For the Love of Learning report on the Ontario education system recommended common core standards for school districts and multi-year, provincial proficiency testing in literacy and numeracy beginning in Grade 3.6 This report inspired a rewriting of Ontario curriculum documents with greater emphasis on public accountability measures, standards-based teaching, and increased emphasis on both formative and summative assessment practices. Since 2000, the accountability movement has proliferated across educational systems in Canada, with teachers now needing to use assessments daily to monitor student learning and report on student achievement.7

Where we are now

Within the current accountability context of Canadian public schools, AFL policies and professional development opportunities are beginning to surface in an effort to support teacher practice in this area. Specifically, several provincial policies articulate the linkages between assessment forof, and as learning and provincial curriculum expectations. For example, the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol for Collaboration in Education, which represents Ministries of Education in Western and Northern Canada, published a document in 2006 entitled Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind. The document describes assessment as follows:

“Assessment for learning, assessment as learning, and assessment of learning all serve valuable, and different, purposes. It is not always easy, however, getting the balance right. If we want to enhance learning for all students, the role of assessment for learning and assessment as learning takes on a much higher profile than assessment of learning.”8

There are several subtle but important distinctions between earlier conceptions of formative assessment and more contemporary understandings of AFL. In relation to formative assessment, AFL:


  • Encourages active engagement of students within the assessment process, so that they are users of assessment information to guide their own learning;
  • Encourages a transparent approach to assessment including the explicit sharing of learning and assessment criteria, which are often co-constructed with learners; and
  • Includes a sub-category of assessment as learning that focuses on using assessment tasks to help students develop metacognitive and self-regulation skills for lifelong learning.


Overall, current understandings of AFL are less teacher-centric, with greater participation of learners and other educational stakeholders in the assessment process.

Assessment for learning supports students’ growth toward educational standards while assessment as learning activities cultivate student autonomy, self-regulation and general learning skills.

Across provincial assessment policies, there is an explicit articulation of the value and benefits of integrating assessment for and as learning into classroom teaching and learning (see www.cafln.ca for complete listing of policies). These policies emphasize that AFL supports students’ growth toward educational standards while assessment as learning activities cultivate student autonomy, self-regulation, and general learning skills. Underpinning these policies is the assertion that supporting students’ ability to learn (i.e. assessment as learning) accelerates learning, improves summative assessment results, and contributes to lifelong learning commitments.

Supporting teacher learning in assessment

Despite widespread provincial policies aimed at assessment for and as learning, several researchers have noticed gaps in teachers’ capacity to implement contemporary assessment practices in their classrooms.9 These gaps are attributed to challenges related to teacher professional learning opportunities in assessment, practical barriers (e.g. time, class size, resources), and limited research on the nuances of integrating AFL in diverse classroom contexts. As a result of these systemic challenges, several Canadian provinces have engaged in various initiatives to support teachers’ integration of AFL. For example, since 1999 Alberta school divisions have been provided with provincial funding to engage in cyclical professional development projects aimed at improving student learning and performance, with many of these projects focused on AFL. The resulting projects are intended to build capacity in assessment at classroom and school levels, with results shared provincially to encourage systemic adoption of AFL.

Similarly, the Ontario Ministry of Education and Ontario teachers’ federations have supported teachers through various professional learning programs and funding for collaborative inquiries focused on AFL. Increasing teacher assessment literacy, specifically in the use of assessment forof, and as learning, across the province is also a significant part of a larger effort toward a school-wide comprehensive reform model known as the School Effectiveness Framework. In this framework, school improvement is predicated on reliable and valid assessment information about student learning, teacher effectiveness, and school/district achievement of systemic goals. Accordingly, in Ontario, the use of assessment information is integral to the educational system, not only for enhancing student achievement but also for supporting teacher learning and school/district systemic goals.

Overall, AFL is taking hold as a key feature of educational assessment programs in Canada. Classroom assessment policies that integrate assessment for and as learning are evident across the provinces. Significant efforts are being made to support teachers and school administrators in interpreting and implementing these policies and assessment priorities. However, additional research is needed on effective professional learning structures to support teachers in implementing AFL in their diverse contexts of practice. Continued research is also required on the ways AFL is operationalized and integrated across curricular areas, teaching divisions, and with diverse student learning populations. Ultimately, there is an emerging effort across the country to integrate AFL to support teacher learning, inform school decision-making and district priorities, and most importantly, enhance student learning across Canada.

Note: Portions of this article have been adapted from sections of the following refereed journal article: M. Birenbaum, C. DeLuca, L. Earl, M. Heritage, V. Klenowski, A. Looney, K. Smith, H. Timperley, L. Volante and C. Wyatt-Smith, “International Trends in the Implementation of Assessment for Learning: Implications for policy and practice,” Policy Futures in Education 13, No. 1 (in press).


En Bref – Cet article porte sur la genèse et l’évolution de l’évaluation pour l’apprentissage (EPA) au Canada et associe ces développements récents à l’ensemble de la communauté internationale. Les auteurs analysent également les conséquences des changements récents de politiques dans un contexte de responsabilisation accrue, d’évaluation considérée pour et comme apprentissage dans les stratégies éducatives provinciales et de tensions toujours présentes entre l’EPA et les formes sommatives de l’évaluation dans les systèmes provinciaux d’éducation. Certaines lacunes dans la mise en œuvre de l’EPA, tant en raison d’obstacles pratiques que du nécessaire besoin de développer la capacité des enseignants, existent encore et sont abordées à travers des initiatives émergentes dans tout le pays afin de soutenir une intégration plus efficace de l’EPA.

Illustration: Dave Donald

First published in Education Canada, May 2015




1 B. S. Bloom, J. T. Hastings and G. F. Madaus, Handbook on Formative and Summative Evaluation of Student Learning (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971).

2 Paul Black and D. Wiliam, Inside the Black Box: Raising standards through classroom assessment (London: Kings College, 1998).

3 Assessment Reform Group, Assessment for Learning: Beyond the black box (Cambridge: University of Cambridge School of Education, 1999), 2.

4 Ontario Ministry of Education, Growing Success: Assessment, evaluation and reporting in Ontario schools (Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printers for Ontario, 2010).

5 Manitoba Education, Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind: Assessment for learning, assessment as learning, assessment of learning (Winnipeg: Minister of Education, Citizenship and Youth, 2006).

6 Ontario Royal Commission on Learning, For the Love of Learning: Report of the Royal Commission on Learning (Toronto, ON: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, 1994).

7 Council of Ontario Directors of Education, “Consistency in Classroom Assessment.” www.cpco.on.ca/ProfessionalDevelopment/Resources/CCA-Final.pdf

8 Manitoba Education, Rethinking Classroom Assessment with Purpose in Mind, 14.

9 Don A. Klinger, L. Volante and C. DeLuca, “Building Teacher Capacity Within the Evolving Assessment Culture in Canadian Education,” Policy Futures in Education, Special Issue: Developing sustainable assessment cultures in school learning organisations 10, No. 4 (2012): 447-460.


Meet the Expert(s)

Lorna Earl

Retired Associate Professor from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto

Lorna Earl, PhD, is a retired Associate Professor from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Her work has focused on leveraging policy and program evaluations as a vehicle to enhance learning for pupils and for organizations. Her research also examines assessment for and as learning in the classroom.

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Dr. Louis Volante

Professor, Faculty of Education, Brock University

Louis Volante, PhD, is a Professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University in Hamilton, Ont. He is also a Professorial Fellow at UNU-MERIT (United Nations University – Maastricht Economic and Social Research Institute on Innovation and Technology) and the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, in the Netherlands. lvolante@brocku.ca 

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Christopher DeLuca

Dr. Christopher DeLuca

Associate Professor, Queen's University

Dr. Christopher DeLuca is Associate Professor in Classroom Assessment at the Queen’s University Faculty of Education. Dr. DeLuca’s research examines the complex intersection of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment as operating within the current context of school accountability and standards-based education.

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