Defining “Formative Assessment”

By Sean Cavanagh — October 10, 2008 2 min read
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Earlier this week I attended an event sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education and the Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences, an umbrella group representing 17 math organizations. The event was focused on the recent report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel and how to interpret its findings and translate them into school policy.

Some members of the math panel spoke, as did Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. But the event, held Oct. 6-7, was also arranged to allow groups of state and local school officials, math curriculum experts, and college faculty to meet in small groups to discuss the panel’s work—and some of the pressing issues in math education, overall.

The math panel’s work has evoked strong opinions, some of which were voiced at the event. But the small-group discussions veered into many other topics. One group, made up of state math curriculum officials, talked about the overly vague definitions of what is known as “formative assessment,” and that ambiguity is affecting teaching in math classrooms.

Formative assessments are typically defined as on-the-spot tests of students’ ability that teachers use during a lesson, or a series of them, to quickly gauge student ability. Ideally, they should give teachers a quick read on whether students are grasping the material, allowing them to speed up, slow down, or adjust their presentation in some other way. The formative model stands in contrast to “summative” assessments, generally end-of-course or end-of-year tests meant to measure the knowledge students have gained over a longer period of time.

Some members of the group I listened to complained that the publishing industry is marketing all kinds of commercial math programs to schools that are not formative assessments at all. For instance, some of those products are “benchmark” tests, given, say, every six weeks or so, the participants said, which are not tied to the schedule of math lessons that teachers are delivering. So by the time those tests are given, the students have long since moved on to new material, and it’s too late to gauge whether they learned much from the strategy used by the teacher.

Formative assessment should be a teacher working with a student “and deciding what they know, and deciding what to do next,” Jane Cooney, the elementary mathematics and science specialist for the Indiana Department of Education, told me. A lot of the textbooks and software being marketed to schools isn’t following that approach, she said.

For a good examination of the debate over the uses of formative assessment in the test industry, see my colleague Scott Cech’s story here.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.