Assessment

Chiefs to Focus on Formative Assessments

By Lynn Olson — July 11, 2006 2 min read
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Center to Study Student Progress

States have devoted significant time and money to the tests used for accountability purposes. But a new initiative, announced here June 24, intends to shift at least some of that attention to the assessments that teachers use on an ongoing basis to modify and improve instruction.

The initiative by the Council of Chief State School Officers on the testing known as formative assessment reflects the growing interest in balancing the emphasis on high-stakes tests with a focus on better classroom assessment practices.

“We’re not saying that accountability assessments aren’t part of what we should be doing,” said Frank Philip, the director of program development and operations for the Washington-based council. “We’re just saying they’re most of what we have been doing, and we need to focus on some other areas.”

As part of the initiative, the CCSSO will form a state collaborative on formative-assessment issues, which will meet for the first time in October. It’s also planning to hold a conference on “small-scale assessment” next summer.

Clarifying Terms

But one of the initiative’s first tasks is to define clearly what’s meant by the term “formative assessment,” which test publishers are now applying to a range of products, from electronic banks of test items to periodic assessments designed to predict how well students will perform on end-of-year state exams.

“ ‘Formative assessment’ is anything that you can put the label on that’s in your catalog,” said Stuart Kahl, the president of Measured Progress, a testing company based in Dover, N.H. “If you can label it ‘formative assessment,’ it’s going to sell like hot cakes these days.

“This is why I think we need clarification of the term,” he said. “It’s important for the consumers to know what it is the research is really talking about when it says formative assessment improves student learning.”

Mr. Kahl belongs to a 16-member advisory group for the initiative. Its working definition of “formative” assessments, so far, is that they encompass a variety of classroom assessment processes that provide evidence about the knowledge and skills being taught to help inform what to do next in teaching and learning. The definition is meant to draw a line between the kinds of in-the-moment assessments that teachers use to shape instruction as it’s occurring and tests that are used primarily to grade students or to summarize what’s been learned after instruction is over.

One of the big questions for the chiefs’ council is what role states can play in promoting formative assessment, given that most such activity is at the classroom and district levels. Those attending the meeting suggested a range of options, from supporting professional development for teachers to providing model curriculum units that include high-quality formative assessments.

Scott Marion, the vice president of the Center for Assessment, a nonprofit group, also in Dover, N.H., that works with states to improve their accountability systems, suggested that, above all, states need to express a clear vision of what good instruction, learning, and assessment look like that is grounded in research.

Large-scale assessments are “one of the most visible things that states do,” he added. If such tests measure only low-level outcomes, he said, asking teachers to engage in richer assessment practices in their classrooms won’t work.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as Chiefs to Focus on Formative Assessments

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