Special Report
Assessment

Searching for Clarity on Formative Assessment

By Catherine Gewertz — November 09, 2015 | Corrected: November 09, 2015 5 min read
Alan Velazquez, a 5th grader at Gust Elementary School in Denver, helps a peer with a math equation. Gust is among a growing number of schools that are teaching students to look at their own work and their classmates’ work to figure out where they are in the learning process and where they need to be. Some consider such evaluations to be one form of formative assessment.

Corrected: An earlier version of this study incorrectly described the 1998 study by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam. It is a literature review.

If you ask five teachers what formative assessment is, you’re likely to get five different answers.

Oh, one might say, that’s when I give my Friday quiz or my end-of-unit test. Another will say it’s the feedback she gets from handheld devices that record, in real time, what students have learned. Many will tell you that formative assessment is just about any tool or strategy that helps them find out what students know as they’re learning. Some teachers will say that it’s “just good teaching.”

Even in a field of professionals devoted to helping students learn, misunderstandings about formative assessment abound. The name of the practice might contribute to the confusion: The word “assessment” makes many teachers think of one-time or recurring events, rather than the continuous feedback loop that many argue must characterize good formative practice.

“There is a lot of confusion about the topic, so it often gets implemented in very different ways, leading to very different educational outcomes and a lot of crossed wires among those attempting to implement or even discuss it,” said Gregory J. Cizek, the co-author, with Heidi L. Andrade, of The Handbook of Formative Assessment, which was published in 2009.

“We all have different definitions,” said Joan Herman, who studies formative assessment as a senior research scientist at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, & Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles. “I don’t think the definitions are necessarily in conflict, but because they highlight some parts of the process and not others, it potentially contributes to this Tower of Babel.”

Definitions of formative assessment vary, but few disagree about its central characteristic: its power to yield information about what students are learning while they’re learning it. Beyond that, it gets fuzzy. Fast.

Formative-assessment purists insist, for instance, that student work gleaned from those strategies should never be graded, or carry other stakes for students. Others see no problem—and some benefits—in grading such work.

Some will argue that gathering evidence of learning in real time is formative assessment. Others counter that it’s not formative assessment unless the teacher uses what he or she learned to adjust instruction to students’ needs.

Formative Assessment Definitions

Cizek, a distinguished professor of educational measurement and evaluation at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, sees three camps of thought on formative assessment. One views it simply as “quick, actionable assessments” that provide teachers with information along the way, like “mini-benchmark or mini-summative tests,” he said.

The second camp embraces that concept but adds a twist: Teachers don’t just gain insight into their students, they also learn about their own instructional practice, too. From formative assessment, teachers see what they should reteach or teach next and what strategies worked and didn’t work.

Another viewpoint on formative assessment has a profoundly different primary emphasis: teaching practices designed to help students understand what their learning goals are, figure out how far they are from those goals, and what they must do to get there.

Proponents of that view of formative assessment believe that the metacognitive, self-regulation, and self-evaluation skills students learn benefit them for a lifetime.

Research suggests that formative assessment, done well, can deepen student learning. But exactly how much is still a matter for debate. A widely cited 1998 review of 250 studies on formative-assessment strategies, by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, found significantly positive effect sizes but later research offered a more mixed picture on the strategies’ effectiveness.

Part of the difficulty in gauging formative assessment’s promise is measuring it effectively, said CRESST’s Herman. Direct observations of large numbers of teachers are expensive, and relying on teachers’ own descriptions of their work gets mired in subjectivity. And a lot of the core of the practice—the sense teachers make of students’ responses, in real time—is invisible, she said.

Herman’s studies show that teachers struggle to master formative assessment.

“Even though all teachers were experienced and had previously taught the target content, few were able to use student explanations on open-ended items to interpret student understandings and/or misconceptions,” Herman and her co-authors write in a 2010 paper, which examined 40 elementary school science teachers’ use of formative-assessment strategies. “Teachers’ ability to formulate specific next steps for teaching and learning was even more limited. Certainly such findings raise important questions about ... teacher capacity to use assessment to promote learning or to bring the vision of formative assessment to fruition.”

Hope for Consensus

Even though many teachers still have far to go to master formative assessment, and differing definitions of it can be confusing, many experts find hope in what they see as a landscape of increased attention to the practice and consensus around its meaning.

“I really do think that most teachers understand formative assessment to be something that takes place during the process of instruction and is immediately used to inform subsequent instruction,” as opposed to interim or benchmark tests, which are typically more standardized and take place at planned, specified junctures, Herman said.

That still leaves open a vast territory for disagreement, however.

Even the formative-assessment experts argue about whether good practice can include a more “top down” approach, in which a teacher plans specific junctures in instruction for collecting evidence of student learning, or whether the only good formative assessment happens “from the bottom up,” in the moment, with teachers watching and probing for student understanding.

More than a few educators and scholars will tell you that using the word “assessment” to name the practice is misleading. Formative assessment is nothing more than good teaching, they’ll argue.

Good teaching, perhaps, but teaching in ways that the field itself is still struggling to define and verify.

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 2015 edition of Education Week as Bringing Clarity to a Cloudy Idea

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
School & District Management Webinar
Making Digital Literacy a Priority: An Administrator’s Perspective
Join us as we delve into the efforts of our panelists and their initiatives to make digital skills a “must have” for their district. We’ll discuss with district leadership how they have kept digital literacy
Content provided by Learning.com
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
School & District Management Webinar
How Schools Can Implement Safe In-Person Learning
In order for in-person schooling to resume, it will be necessary to instill a sense of confidence that it is safe to return. BD is hosting a virtual panel discussing the benefits of asymptomatic screening
Content provided by BD
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
Student Well-Being Webinar
How Districts Are Centering Relationships and Systemic SEL for Back to School 21-22
As educators and leaders consider how SEL fits into their reopening and back-to-school plans, it must go beyond an SEL curriculum. SEL is part of who we are as educators and students, as well as
Content provided by Panorama Education

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

Assessment Opinion Alternatives to Standardized Tests During a Pandemic Year
Three educators suggest alternatives to federally mandated standardized testing during this year undercut by COVID-19.
7 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty
Assessment Opinion AP Exams Can't Be Business as Usual This Year
The College Board seems unconcerned with the collateral damage of its pandemic approach, writes an assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
Pete Bavis
5 min read
Illustration of large boat in turbulent waters with other smaller boats falling into the abyss.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Assessment Federal Lawmakers Urge Miguel Cardona to Let States Cancel Tests, Highlighting Discord
A letter from Democratic members to the new education secretary calls for an end to the "flawed" system of annual standardized exams.
3 min read
Jamaal Bowman speaks to reporters after voting at a polling station inside Yonkers Middle/High School in Yonkers, N.Y. on June 23, 2020.
Jamaal Bowman speaks to reporters after voting at a polling station inside Yonkers Middle/High School in Yonkers, N.Y. on June 23, 2020.
John Minchillo/AP
Assessment How Two Years of Pandemic Disruption Could Shake Up the Debate Over Standardized Testing
Moves to opt out of state tests and change how they're given threaten to reignite fights over high-stakes assessments.
9 min read
Image of a student at a desk.
patat/iStock/Getty