Understanding Formative Assessment


Formative assessment became a familiar term used in classrooms beginning in the 1960’s, but in truth, the actual practice of formative assessment goes back hundreds of years. Think of one-room schoolhouses where teachers taught students ranging in age, ability and grade level.

Long before the idea of formative, summative or standardized assessments, teachers faced the challenge of determining what to teach based on the needs of their students. It is interesting to think that teachers in the 18th century faced the same questions teachers face today. What do my student’s already know? What do they still need to learn to be successful? How do I make sure all students are on the right path to achieve the intended outcome? Using formative assessment is one way teachers have answered these questions.

Although the concept has been around for years, many teachers are still unsure what formative assessments entail. This, in part, is due to many different interpretations of what a formative assessment is and how they are used in the classroom.  In 1998, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam defined formative assessment as “all those activities undertaken by teachers, and/or by their students, which provide information to be used as feedback to modify the teaching and learning activities in which they are engaged.” While Black and Wiliams’ research strongly supported the need and use of Formative assessment, the definition implies informal assessments and is very general.

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In 2002, No Child Left Behind Act brought assessments to the forefront of educational planning and focus across the nation. States were suddenly required to develop their own standards and administer annual assessments to determine academic success. While success on standardized and summative assessments became crucial, the definition of formative assessments began to take on a different meaning.

 In 2006, James Popham stated that an assessment is formative to the degree that the information collected from the assessment is used during the assessed instruction period to improve instruction to meet the needs of the students assessed.

Today, The Glossary of Education Reform defines formative assessments as a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course. The general goal of formative assessment is to collect detailed information that is used to improve instruction and student learning while it is happening. The acronym S.M.A.R.T.E.R aligns well with the concept of formative assessment.  

Photo by Artur/iStock / Getty Images

Photo by Artur/iStock / Getty Images

Just as the expectations of student success has evolved over time, so has the expectations  of formative assessment in today’s classrooms. The focus has now moved from informally observing academic achievement, to purposefully collecting specific data throughout the teaching of a unit, skill or standard. Data collected provides feedback to both students and teachers. This allows teachers to modify teaching and learning activities to meet the needs of all students.

Today there is much discussion over the amount of assessments students are required to complete. Many parents and educators share the concern that our students are being over tested and in the process over stressed. While these may be very legitimate concerns, it is important to understand the purpose of formative assessments verses the purpose of summative assessment.

Formative assessments allow teachers to throw out the dreaded word “test.” Formative assessments can be thought of as multiple checkpoints where students touch base with the teacher. Many instructional experts encourage formative assessments not be used for grades, but solely for the purpose of feedback and guiding instruction. Where summative assessments administered at the end of teaching to determine mastery, formative assessments are ongoing activities that are part of the teaching and learning process.

Formative Assessment Expert Paul Black put it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative assessment. When the customer tastes the soup, that’s summative assessment.” Formative assessments are not unit tests, pop quizzes or pass/fail activities. They should not cause the feelings of anxiety often associated with summative assessments.

Formative assessments do not take away from valuable teaching time, but instead provide teachers a better understanding of students’ needs in turn providing more efficient and effective lessons customized to meet the needs of the students.

While formative assessments can come in a variety of methods and activities, there are common characteristics these assessments share to ensure they have a powerful impact on student learning.

Formative Assessments should:

·        Give insights to differentiated instruction

·        Provide specific feedback directly to students

·        Allow students to compare their performance to the desired             outcome

·        Provide data analysis which drives instruction

·        Bring awareness to the need for intervention or remediation

·        Be administered with ease and frequency

Research suggests formative assessments have notable positive outcomes on student achievement, teachers have found that they also come with certain challenges. The teacher blog site: http://edte.ch/blog asked teachers to share the challenges they face when using formative assessments. One of the most noted obstacles mentioned was adjusting the mindset of students and parents. In a school system that has put a strong emphasis letter grades defining success, helping students and parents understand the use of formative assessments can take time.

Response Analysis Report provide by  Lennections.com

Response Analysis Report provide by Lennections.com

Teachers also noted the challenge of having time to analyze collected data and differentiating instruction.  Using educational sites, such as Lennections.com, which allows teachers to administer online assignments that include actions and item analysis reports often help ease this challenge. Sites like these also aide in administering differentiated instruction to small groups or individual students through online assignments and automated grading.

As teachers begin collecting and analyzing student data to drive instruction it is important they have time address the following questions:

·        What methods will be most effective to meet the needs of my            students?

·        What flexibly groupings are needed in order to effectively                 differentiate instruction?

·        What are the needs of the whole class and small groups?

·        What extending learning opportunities could benefit my                    students?

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Changing the climate of a school or district can take time. The National Association of Elementary School Principals (http://www.naesp.org) outlines five recommendations to help support the positive use of data driven instruction.

First, make data a part of an ongoing cycle of instructional improvement. Next, teach students to become active participants in analyzing their own data and setting academic goals. Third, establish a clear vision for school-wide date use. Fourth, provide the necessary support that encourages a data driven atmosphere. Finally, develop and maintain a district wide data system.

Formative and summative assessments each have their own place and role in the classroom. According to Classroom Assessment and the National Science Education Standards, Large-scale assessments at the district, state and national levels are conducted for different purposes; to formulate policy, monitor the effects of policies and enforce them, make comparisons, monitor progress towards goals, evaluate programs, and for accountability purposes (NRC, 1996).

While these assessments have a great effect on our educational systems as a whole, their purpose is very different from formative assessments. Formative assessments are part of the instructional process; require student involvement, data analysis, and differentiated instruction. While the terminology may change, and expectations evolve, teachers in the past and present are challenged to learn as much as they can about their students to move them toward the goal of academic success.

High achievement always takes place in the framework of high expectation.
— Charles Kettering