Clarifying the Meaning of an Education Catchphrase

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To the Editor:

I applaud the effort by the Council of Chief State School Officers to clarify the term “formative assessment,” as reported in "Chiefs to Focus on Formative Assessments" (July 12, 2006). Without a doubt, “formative assessment” is one of the hottest catchphrases in K-12 education today, with its frequency of usage in the press increasing over 800 percent between 2000 and 2005 (based on analysis by the education market-research firm Eduventures). Yet despite its current popularity—or perhaps because of it—the term is misleading and risks obfuscating an important advance in classroom instruction.

At its root, formative assessment is best described as a pedagogical concept, akin to the Socratic method, and not as a tradable commodity or service. Yet educators and suppliers alike lately have started to buy and sell “formative assessment” as if it were a box of pencils. In light of this, Eduventures introduced the term “formative instruction” in a recent report to underscore the distinction between the concept of formative assessment and its practical application in the classroom.

Formative instruction precisely captures the essence of what so many people are talking about these days: using assessment results to adapt teaching to meet specific student needs, without interrupting instruction to do so. Moreover, the real formative work has very little to do with assessment and much more to do with the prescription of customized content, targeted tutoring, and even professional development—components that are related to classroom instruction.

This argument is far more than an exercise in semantics. Once the discussion has been framed as instruction being delivered in a formative manner, the focus can shift from clarifying terms to investigating what tools and techniques can most effectively aid in the delivery of formative instruction. The result may redefine how students learn.

Tim Wiley
Senior Analyst
Eduventures LLC
Boston, Mass.

Vol. 25, Issue 44, Page 37

Published in Print: August 9, 2006, as Clarifying the Meaning of an Education Catchphrase

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