Formative Assessment: Subjectivity vs. Proof

By Catherine Gewertz — November 16, 2010 1 min read
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Our story about formative assessment seems to have struck a bit of a nerve. Readers are raising interesting questions about it. So let’s go one more round on this today.

Margaret Heritage, the author of a recent report that sparked our story on formative assessment, has been responding to some of the points raised about the practice. Before we move on to today’s exchange, let’s take a second to do a quick catch-up with those of you who are just checking in.

Heritage wrote an interesting report that was the subject of an equally interesting panel discussion last week. She argued that formative assessment isn’t a series of quizzes, it’s an integral part of the reciprocal feedback loop of teacher and student in figuring out how learning—and thus teaching—is going. My story, which links to her report, is here, and a blog post with more about the discussion is here. Readers’ comments on the story and blog are worth a look, too; one of them, from retired Washington state teacher Ken Mortland, prompted me to ask Heritage for a response, and I wrote about that exchange here yesterday.

Reading Heritage’s response, Mortland wrote back again, and Heritage obliged with a response. Their exchange is below. I welcome you into this interesting dialogue about the important process of figuring out what students are learning.

From Mortland:

Upon reading your reply, I get the sense that, for you, "formative assessment" is a subjective process that goes on within the mind of the instructor, during the process of teaching the lesson. Using questioning techniques, the instructor can gauge the understanding of students by evaluating their responses. Such techniques are common and an integral part of teaching. There remains the issue of the "subjectiveness" of the process.
While this process may help evaluate the learning of those you question, it is not feasible to ask every student the necessary questions, so the evaluation involves only those students questioned. I perceive Mastery Learning's process of "formative assessments" as being more global in nature than the process you describe and providing hard-copy proof of learning or lack thereof. The language of Mastery Learning uses the term "formative assessments" specifically, in describing this process. Though it doesn't fit your definition, I've come to the conclusion that Mastery Learning's "formative assessments" are, indeed, formative. I choose, therefore, to disagree with your analysis. No disrespect intended.

Heritage responds:

Formative assessment certainly occurs during a lesson. It is a planned process. By this I mean teachers are clear about when and how they are going to collect evidence of how their students' learning is evolving in Dylan Wiliam's terms, minute-by-minute, day-by-day. I agree that questioning techniques are important ways to gather evidence. But there are many more that a teacher can use to gauge if there is a need for instructional adjustments during the lesson for the class as a whole or for specific students.
As for "subjectiveness," yes, teachers will make judgments based on evidence, but isn't this what they are supposed to do? Teachers develop conceptions of what it means to meet a learning goal for a lesson and specific criteria of what students will do or say to indicate they are (or are not) moving forward to meet the intended learning goal. Then they collect evidence in relation to those indicators and make judgments about their students' learning and decisions about what to do next so that students ultimately reach "mastery." By the way, in the process of formative assessment, students are involved too, and they use the criteria to monitor their own learning as well as to provide feedback to their peers.

Before you move on to ruminate more about formative assessment, I will leave a parting thought with you, prompted by a reminder from another reader. It’s worth noting that some have raised questions about the interpretations of the research base on formative assessment. My colleague Steve Sawchuk blogged about that here.

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