Education Opinion

Dr. Atkin: Formative Assessment is NOT Test Preparation

By Anthony Cody — December 31, 2009 3 min read
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In October I posted an interview with Dr. J Myron Atkin about how educational research is usually trumped by political considerations. I first met Dr. Atkin about eight years ago when I joined the NSF-funded CAPITAL Project (Classroom Assessment Project to Improve Teaching And Learning). As I mentioned in my post earlier this week, this project exposed me to the latest research on formative assessment, and inspired me to incorporate many new strategies into my practice.

In Monday’s post, I raised questions about how the research supporting formative assessment is now being used to justify highly prescriptive checklists and mini-tests for teachers to use -- geared towards preparing students for summative standardized tests. This seems to be at odds with the spirit of the original research that inspired the approach in the first place. I shared my post with Dr. Atkin, and he offers us the following commentary.

Dr. Atkin writes:
The impressive attention that formative assessment is receiving in today’s schools stems from seminal work by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam in the late 1990s. They systematically reviewed the research literature and found 580 reports or chapters in more than 160 journals that bear on the results of formative assessment. They concluded that few, if any, classroom interventions improve student learning as much.

They also have been very clear about exactly what formative assessment is: working with a student, or a group of students, to develop a course of action that helps bridge the gap between current student knowledge and the desired educational goal. Providing feedback that is usable, detailed, and often individualized is at the heart of this kind of assessment. Formative assessment, so defined, is a pivotal element of everyday classroom teaching. It occurs throughout the school day. It requires collaborative involvement of both teacher and student. And it isn’t something purchased from a vendor that can be used in an identical fashion anywhere, like an instruction book or a cooking recipe.

Regrettably, the testing companies have hijacked the formative label
and are marketing it toward ends that are the polar opposite of what the research highlights as so powerful in student learning. Much of what the companies are marketing as formative assessment consists of prescribed mini-tests inserted at specified points in the curriculum for the purpose of giving students practice for the standardized examinations at the end of the year. In much too facile a fashion, it separates assessment from teaching and learning instead of integrating all three.

One-size-fits-all, large-scale, end-of-year summative testing has already weakened education by reducing the curriculum to outcomes that can be assessed by relatively inexpensive tests using multiple-choice and other short-answer questions. We are now seeing a solidification of that influence as testing companies aggressively promote infusion of the entire curriculum with scores of mini-tests -- under the guise of promoting formative assessment. Preparing for the big tests by having the students take many little ones of the same kind may be one way to teach, but it isn’t formative assessment.

The key benefits of formative assessment emphasized in the research literature are associated with changes in the classroom that result when teachers and students collaborate closely in examining the quality of student work. What does quality look like? What might the student do to improve school work to bring it to a higher quality than it is right now? This integration of teaching, learning, and assessment is complex work, but potent. It takes time and effort: hours, days, weeks, and months - not the periodic 15 or 20 minutes needed to respond to questions purchased from a remote “item bank” developed by the testing companies to foreshadow the final examination. Reporting mini-test scores to the students and even discussing common incorrect answers has little relationship to the type of feedback studied by Black and Wiliam that produced such large gains in achievement.

Standardized testing has a place in a comprehensive system of assessment, but not if it saturates the curriculum in ways that weaken teaching and learning, and not if it is directed primarily toward preparation for tests that are known to have serious limitations of scope and depth. The saddest element for students, teachers, parents, and the general public is that we know better.

Dr. J Myron Atkin is a professor (emeritus) of education at Stanford University.

What do you think? How are you seeing formative assessment used in your school? Is this helping our students?

image by J Myron Atkin

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.