Education Opinion

The Trouble with Formative Assessment

By Anthony Cody — December 28, 2009 3 min read
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There is a great deal of educational research that now points to the value of formative assessment. This wave began about a dozen years ago, with the publication of an influential paper by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, entitled “Inside the Black Box, Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment.” (downloadable here) Black and Wiliam provided strong evidence that when teachers assess student performance routinely as instruction unfolds, this information can be used to provide timely and specific feedback to students, which has a powerful impact on learning. It can also be used to inform instruction, so that teachers know when concepts have been missed or grasped, and what misconceptions may have arisen. These practices are known as formative assessment, and have become a part of most modern curricula and school improvement efforts.

I learned about this research eight years ago, when I was part of the NSF-funded CAPITAL Project (Classroom Assessment Project to Improve Teaching And Learning), led by Dr. J Myron Atkin. Dr. Atkin’s hypothesis was that assessment practices flowed from deeply held teacher beliefs. He wanted to see how these practices might change when teachers received new information about more effective models of assessment. We read the research of Black and Wiliam, and even spent some time meeting with them as they described their work and how we might apply it in our classrooms.

Over the next several years I actively experimented with giving more feedback to my students, using rubrics, models of student work, and having students assess their own work as well as that of their peers. This really transformed my teaching. I began to see the value of having a clear set of goals in mind when I began a unit. I could see how much more the students learned when I was clear about these goals, and helped them with these various strategies. I felt empowered because I had been actively engaged in a process that made this work for me, with my particular philosophy and style of teaching.

So if you ask me “does formative assessment work?” I would reply “yes, it does.”

But there is a way that good ideas can get turned into bureaucratic nightmares.

My friend teacherken over at Daily Kos alerted me to this story about a new formative assessment system being implemented in Baltimore County, Maryland. The article says:

Baltimore County school administrators have ordered all teachers to begin using a grading system next month that will require them to judge whether each of their students has mastered more than 100 specific skills.

This system is designed to show if students have achieved “mastery” on the skills contained in state standards. The article continues:

It shows that elementary school teachers, who often have classes of up to 25 students, will have to judge each of their students on whether they have mastered more than a hundred skills in as many subjects as they teach. In high schools, where some teachers can have more than 100 students, the task will be no less complicated, teachers say.
Over the course of a year, many teachers would have to make as many as 10,000 marks indicating whether a child had learned a task. For instance, a third-grade teacher would have to determine whether a child has dozens of skills, including the ability to "apply phonics skills to decode words with hard and soft consonants and 2-letter initial consonant blends." And in middle school math, one of the skills listed says, "analyze and describe non-linear functions using the vocabulary of appearance."

The fundamental idea behind formative assessment is that a teacher should be actively monitoring student learning in many ways, on all the important dimensions that we are trying to teach. A conscientious and skilled teacher can do this by a variety of formal and informal assessment practices. We can use exit slips to check for understanding. We can walk around the classroom as students work and observe who is struggling to complete an assignment. We can review student work, and we can have students review the work of their peers. The essence of this is empowering the teacher and elevating her importance as an active participant in the learning process.

But what happens if we do not trust teachers to do this work skillfully and with integrity? Then we create checklists to make sure they are doing every discreet step. We mandate the use of these forms, and require teachers to do thousands of assessments a year. And what should be a powerful tool in the hands of effective teachers can become a row of boxes to be filled in.

I have not used the Baltimore County system, so I would love to hear from anyone who has used it, or similar record-keeping systems.

What do you think of the Baltimore County program? Have you used formative assessment strategies effectively? Have you used anything like the Baltimore County system?

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.