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What Does ‘Formative Assessment’ Mean, Anyway?

Published:  November 22, 2010
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A new report on “next generation” assessment systems is stirring up some important questions about how assessment tools should be used to provide feedback to teachers and students.  The report also provides a tightened definition of the educational buzzword that refers to that feedback loop: “formative assessment.”

The report “Formative Assessment and Next-Generation Assessment Systems: Are We Losing an Opportunity?,”  written by Margaret Heritage of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST), was released earlier this month at an event hosted by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO).

Early educators may find the report interesting because, although summative assessments like statewide tests are not given in the early grades, formative assessment is increasingly becoming important for educators working with children of all ages. The report describes in-depth what formative assessment should look like in practice and explains how the information obtained can help them to differentiate their instruction to meet students’ individual needs.

The paper comes in the wake of the U.S. Department of Education awarding grants to two large consortia -- the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) – to develop assessments to accompany the new Common Core standards that have been adopted by more than 40 states.  (One of them, PARCC plans to develop assessments for K-2 students – we’ll post an analysis of their plans in the near future.)

In the paper, Heritage questioned the grant winners, criticizing their use definition and discussion of formative assessment.

According to Heritage, formative assessment is a process of continuously gathering evidence about learning that helps a teacher identify how a student is doing and adapt lessons to help the student reach a specific learning goal. According to her research, feedback plays a significant role in formative assessment for both teachers and students. Teachers gain feedback from their assessment of student progress and students receive feedback from conversations with their teacher about how they are progressing and what they can do to improve.

Heritage criticized the Race to the Top assessment proposals for putting forward more tools and more measures to support formative assessment. She stated there is a widespread “assumption that formative assessment is a particular kind of measurement instrument, rather than a process that is fundamental and indigenous to the practice of teaching and learning.”

But wait, you might be asking: Shouldn’t teachers use some type of measurement instrument to obtain evidence about a student’s learning? Here’s where Heritage made another distinction. She suggested that the instruments (tests and quizzes) used at the end of chapters or units are actually interim assessments, for which, , there is little or no evidence of a positive impact on student learning.

It stands to reason, of course, that even interim assessments would provide at least some type of feedback to teachers about what students are learning and inform teachers as to how they should differentiate their instruction to meet students’ learning needs.

One key difference between the two, though, at least as Heritage explained it, is that formative assessment is more of a check-in with students while learning is occurring, not when a specific unit or topic is complete. Formative assessment actively engages students in their own learning. When used this way, Heritage said, “Student learning gains triggered by formative assessment were amongst the largest ever reported for educational interventions.”

(But there has been past criticism that the research has been oversold. In a 2009 post on Education Week’s Teacher Beat blog, Stephen Sawchuck, reported that not all researchers agree on how the results from studies on formative assessment have been interpreted. He wrote that Randy Bennett, president of the Educational Testing Service, suggested it might be time to take a closer look at the practice of formative assessment and that research that supports it, as some studies had various procedural issues. Sawchuck pointed out that formative assessment, while promising, is not a “silver bullet.” It is safe to say, however, that this is true for every other individual education reform too.)

At the CCSSO event, attendees and panelists discussed the difference between formative assessment and tests used for interim or benchmarking assessments at the CCSSO event.  One panelist even suggested changing the name of formative assessment to “formative instruction” because of the fear by many educators that formative assessment just means more tests. The majority of panelists commented that this might only add to the confusion.

If you want to read more about this debate, check out Education Week’s Curriculum Matters blog and story by Catherine Gewertz. And if you are interested in seeing a clip of formative assessment in action, click here.

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