School & District Management

Expert Issues Warning on Formative-Assessment Uses

By Catherine Gewertz — November 11, 2010 4 min read

As educators across the country focus attention on designing new and better ways to gauge what students are learning, they risk distorting the meaning and practice of formative assessment and squandering its potential to enhance teaching and learning, an assessment expert is warning.

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.

Her comments were aimed directly at two groups of states that are working to design assessment systems for new common standards that have been adopted so far by 41 states. Since the new tests stand to exert a potent influence in classrooms across the country, the type of tests they produce—and the way they purport to gauge student knowledge—are the subject of keen attention.

Ms. Heritage argued that the two consortia lack “the right mind-set” because they depict formative assessment as sets of tools, or “mini-summative” tests.

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.

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.

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.

While summative tests can provide valuable information for decisions about programs or curriculum, she said, the most valuable assessment for instruction is the continuous, deeply engaged feedback loop of formative assessment. Channeling money into building teachers’ skills in that technique is a better investment in student achievement, she said, than paying for more test design.

Technique Misunderstood?

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that is the project manager for the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers consortium, said his organization’s primary aim is to design a better summative assessment, and is not creating formative assessments as part of that package. By clearly defining performance standards, however, his group’s summative tests can “provide a context” for good formative-assessment practice, Mr. Cohen said during the panel discussion.

The executive director of the other consortium, called SMARTER Balanced, said his group envisions formative assessments not as a tool, but as a “way of doing business, a way of interacting with students,” so it is designing a set of resources for teachers to use in that instructional feedback loop.

“If that point wasn’t made clear in our proposal, that’s an unfortunate misunderstanding,” Joe Willhoft said in a phone interview. “One of the three legs of our plan is exactly that: professional development,” along with interim assessments and adaptive summative tests.

Other members of the panel, organized by the Council of Chief State School Officers, which is supporting states as they design new assessments, urged better training of preservice and in-service teachers in using formative assessment. Many teachers think they are using the technique, but they fundamentally misunderstand it, said Stuart Kahl, the co-founder of Measured Progress, a Dover, N.H.-based assessment designer.

“There are teachers who say, ‘Oh, I do formative; I quiz them every day,’” he joked.

Sarah McManus, the chief of testing and policy operations for the North Carolina education department, said her agency is helping teachers learn formative assessment by posting modules online. But states must devote resources to thorough, ongoing professional development to build the skills in their teachers, she said.

Mastering formative assessment carries profound implications for changing teaching from a top-down process to a more collaborative one, said Caroline Wylie, a research scientist with the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service who also appeared on the panel.

“This is not a follow-the-pacing-guide sort of teaching,” Ms. Wylie said.

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.”

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the November 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Expert Warns Against Misuse of Formative Assessments

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Education Funding Webinar
From Crisis to Opportunity: How Districts Rebuild to Improve Student Well-Being
K-12 leaders discuss the impact of federal funding, prioritizing holistic student support, and how technology can help.
Content provided by Salesforce.org

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Opinion Stress, Anxiety, Initiative Fatigue … Oh My! Perhaps It’s Time to 'De-Implement'?
We see an increase in stress and anxiety that educators feel but never do anything about it. It's time to talk about de-implementation.
6 min read
De implementation
Shutterstock
School & District Management Video Education Week Leadership Symposium: Resource Center
Resource Center for K-12 education’s premier leadership event.
1 min read
School & District Management Cash for Shots? Districts Take New Tacks to Boost Teacher Vaccinations
In order to get more school staff vaccinated, some district leaders are tempting them with raffles, jeans passes, and cash.
8 min read
Illustration of syringe tied to stick
Getty
School & District Management National Teachers' Union President: Schools Must Reopen 5 Days a Week This Fall
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten wants five days a week of in-person school next fall.
4 min read
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, talks during a news conference in front of the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching on Sept. 8, 2020.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, talks during a news conference in front of the Richard R. Green High School of Teaching on Sept. 8, 2020.
Mark Lennihan/AP