There’s a pretty broad research base on how “formative assessments” can improve learning but not so much on “interim assessments,” according to a new paper by the Consortium on Policy Research on Education.
So what’s the difference between the two?
According to co-author Leslie Nabors Olah (there should be an accent over the `a’ in Olah), formative assessments, usually made by teachers, are used to gauge students’ thinking, to find out what they know and whether they are “getting” the lesson. The interim variety is usually developed by testing companies, states, and districts. The results can be aggregated and are used to determine students’ strengths and weaknesses and plan instruction accordingly, often with an eye toward getting students up to some “proficient” level on state tests. The latter have become increasingly popular with the advent of the No Child Left Behind law and the growing capacity of states to collect data on student achievement. But few studies have looked at what teachers are doing with the results of those tests, what kinds of supports they need to make use of them, and whether they impact student achievement, according to the consortium.
To help fill in that gap, the CPRE research team has been studying elementary school teachers in one urban and one suburban district in Pennsylvania. They found that, while the results helped teachers identify instructional weaknesses, they didn’t necessarily spur any changes in instruction. Often the disconnect came because teachers weren’t given the know-how, the time, or the resources to figure out how to address students’ knowledge gaps or because the assessments weren’t aligned with the curriculum.
“If the support isn’t there they can’t use the assessment,” said Olah, a senior researcher for CPRE.
There are lots of other recommendations in this report—all of them timely, I’d say, since data-based decision-making is one of the areas getting a heavy emphasis in the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition for economic-stimulus funds. You can also find a brief summarizing the report’s findings here.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.