Accurately Defining Formative Assessment

Accurately Defining Formative AssessmentDoes formative assessment get a bad rap? I think for many people new to the idea of using formative assessment it does. It could be the use of the word ‘assessment’ which today is getting both good and bad press for many reasons, which I won’t go into here. What if it were called formative practice?

A recent post at Garnet Hillman’s blog – Assess for the Sake of Learning – caught my eye and got me thinking about how people may perceive formative assessment, and I love the sports analogy she uses in her explanation of what formative assessment is.

Formative practice is just like training for any athlete.  Formative work is low stakes when taking a risk to learn something new.  Failure at first is expected, but equally expected is a rise from it to find success.  If an athlete doesn’t do the work to improve and get better, they are not going to perform when it is game time. The same is true of the learners in my classroom.  If they have not practiced their speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills in Spanish, the summative assessments will not show proficiency or growth.  Feedback is the key to learning during formative practice.  Scores, numbers, and letters are not necessary and can be in fact detrimental during the practice phase. 

A more formal definition of formative assessment is that it’s a planned classroom practice to elicit evidence of learning minute to minute, day by day in the classroom; along with non-summative assessments that occur while content is still being taught. Both of these can inform teachers of what students know or do not know, help students understand what it is they are ready to learn next, so teachers can adjust their instruction accordingly for each of their students.

This is much different than interim assessment or summative assessment, where learning is measured and even graded for benchmarking purposes. These are assessments of learning and not for learning. They are certainly useful tools, but not day-to-day, or even minute-by-minute, tools that can have an impact on learning. They determine if learning has occurred, but they do not move learning forward; they determine what has been learned (past tense) not what needs to be taught (present tense).

As a concept or practice, formative assessment is a proven winner. Dylan Wiliam’s book – Embedded Formative Assessment – is founded on five strategies that he has come to believe are core to successful formative assessment practice in the classroom:

1. Clarifying, sharing, and understanding learning intentions and criteria for success 

2. Engineering effective classroom discussions, activities, and learning tasks that elicit evidence of learning

3. Providing feedback that moves learning

4. Activating learners as instructional resources for one another

5. Activating learners as owners of their own learning

Within each of these five practices are numerous techniques, strategies and tactics, or plays if we’re keeping with the sports analogy, which can work for any number of classroom environments. It’s this flexibility and its proven success that has me wishing all educators understood how different formative assessment is from other assessments of learning.

I’d love to hear your experiences with formative assessment in your classroom or school, so drop a comment below and share.


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