Buzzword alert. What does formative assessment really mean?

Education Week: Expert Issues Warning on Formative-Assessment Uses.

Education Week has an excellent (and short!) article about how formative assessment is not a well-understood concept. I seem to be hearing the words “formative assessment” with greater frequency, perhaps moving into the “buzzword” category. But what does it really mean?

“Margaret Heritage, the assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing, or CRESST, at the University of California, Los Angeles, appeared on a panel here last week to discuss a new paper intended as a reminder of what formative assessment should be.”

“Referring to a body of work that sought to define formative assessment during the past two decades, including the influential 1998 article, “Inside the Black Box,” by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, she said formative assessment is not a series of quizzes or a “more frequent, finer-grained” interim assessment, but a continuous process embedded in adults’ teaching and students’ learning.” (emphasis mine)

Lately, I’ve been hearing summative assessment as if it means “the test at the end” and formative assessment is testing leading up to that. This is clearly not the case. Take a trip around vendor booths at any educational conference and you will see that formative assessment is being sold as mini-quizzes that are supposed to give the teacher “feedback” about how the student is doing so “adjustments” can be made before the final test. This is a terrible corruption of the meaning of formative assessment and strips it of its power.

“Teachers use formative assessment to guide instruction when they clearly define what students should know, periodically gauge their understanding, and give them descriptive feedback—not simply a test score or a grade—to help them reach those goals, Ms. Heritage said. Students engage in the process by understanding how their work must evolve and developing self-assessment and peer-assessment strategies to help them get there, she said.”

Turning formative assessment into more little tests is a deceit aimed at selling more testing products and making them easier to invent, administer and catalog.

To do formative assessment, teachers have to talk to students and look at student work. They have to have a relationship with the student so that the feedback is meaningful and useful. With good professional development and a supportive school culture, teachers can learn to do formative assessment. It doesn’t take more time to do it right.

What takes time is testing that focuses on catching students at what they DON’T know for the purpose of collecting more data points. Those gaps in understanding could have been caught in the context of learning. Missing those teachable moments is a lost opportunity that can’t be regained.

“Ms. Heritage’s comments echo others’ concerns that the meaning of formative assessment has been hijacked as the standards movement has pressed states into large-scale testing systems. The result, Ms. Heritage said, is a “paradigm of measurement” instead of one of learning.”

“A teacher quoted at the end of Ms. Heritage’s paper captures the essence of the paradigm shift Ms. Heritage has in mind.

“I used to do a lot of explaining, but now I do a lot of questioning,” said the teacher. “I used to do a lot of talking, but now I do a lot of listening. I used to think about teaching the curriculum, but now I think about teaching the student.””

Doing real formative assessment is not impossible, and shouldn’t be dismissed as “too difficult” or “too expensive.”

What’s really expensive is to do cheap things that don’t work, waste time, and discourage student/teacher relationships.


4 Replies to “Buzzword alert. What does formative assessment really mean?”

  1. It’s also important to note here that most (if not all) teachers do some form of formative assessment already. If a child gives you a “funny look” when you explain something to them, chances are pretty good you are going to check for their understanding more closely and rework what you are explaining.

    If your students are in the middle of a collaborative assignment, you as teacher are probably wandering around the classroom checking in on their progress. Anytime you are “checking to see how the students are doing” you are doing a form of formative assessment.

    Using quizzes as formative assessment is shallow at best. It is one form of formative assessment among many many other more deep and meaningful assessment strategies.

    Yesterday I sat down with each of my students and listened to them explain a problem to me. I was assessing their understanding summatively, in the sense that I was taking a reading of their current ability, and I was assessing their understanding formatively because I used that assessment to help me guide my instruction and to help improve their understanding.

  2. A very useful post. One thing that I would add to the clarification of formative assessment by Mrs. Heritage (“continuous process embedded in adults’ teaching and students’ learning.”) is that it is also embedded in ADULTS learning from what the STUDENTS are teaching them. Formative assessment is a continuous-loop process that very much can include small quizzes as one of many bits of feedback that a teacher uses in concert with numerous other rubrics, self-assessments, peer assessments and instruments designed to meet the varied learning modalities and means of demonstrating outcomes that learners have in a classroom. Formative quizzes should not be “for marks”, but rather to provide information for the teacher as to whether clearly defined outcomes are being learned.

  3. I’m late to this post but wanted to share/wallow in your frustration. We’ve been systemically training teachers in what formative assessment means for about 14 years in Scotland, and many are getting it right. Some still don’t have a clue. We can’t assume that a programme of work from 10 years ago is going to keep today’s teachers alert as to what formative assessment might look like.

    But, that said, every time I’ve broached it in schools from New Zealand to America, it’s met with some bemusement, and a notion that it takes too much time, time that needs spent studying for the test (summative assessment). There’s an implication that this, along with project-based learning etc etc, is somehow not worth venturing into just in case it’s not as good as the mediocre old ways we see all too often.

    Most disheartening re formative assessment, was how one well known educational blogger, who shall remain nameless, took my stories on formative assessment and started rephrasing it FORMAL assessment in his own blog posts. What makes it doubly worse: he’s a teacher trainer.

    Keep sharing the gospel, Sylvia, and we might get there one day!

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