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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Has Formative Assessment been Oversold?

Has Formative Assessment been Oversold?

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A few months back, this blog post appeared on Edweek, which raises the question "Has the research on Formative Assessment been oversold?" http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/teacherbeat/2009/05/has-the-research-on-f... Here is the story. Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black published an article back in 1998 entitled Inside the Black Box. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_6952/is_n2_v80/ai_n28723313/?tag=c... This article presented research suggesting that more frequent informal assessments could be used to great effect. They recommended that teachers use such assessments to "inform" or modify their instruction to respond to how students were learning. They also suggested that students would learn much more if teachers de-emphasized grades and focused more on qualitative feedback. They suggested teachers share models of good work, and make it clear to students what quality work looks like. They encouraged the use of rubrics and other descriptors, so students can be guided towards high quality work. Now, more than a decade later, this article has been hugely influential. Formative assessment is a common term, and our textbooks have whole sections devoted to the practice. The blog post I referenced points out that the original study was not presented as a "meta-analysis" -- a systematic review of research. Nonetheless, some of the publishers referencing the study are terming it such as they are using it to justify their claims for the power of this practice. Furthermore, as time has passed, the effect sizes that are claimed have grown bigger and bigger -- which provokes the question -- has formative assessment been oversold? What do you think? What have your experiences been with formative assessment? Do you think it is a powerful tool? Or has it been hyped beyond reason?

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Renee / TeachMoore's picture
Renee / TeachMoore
English teacher, Mississippi

I would suggest that there has not been enough close study of the effects of formative assessmsents at the classroom level, including how teachers actually use them to inform instruction. A similar problem exists with the concept of reflection in teaching; there is a good deal of ancedotal and experiential evidence of its effectiveness, but is there a lot of "hard" data or research on the nuts-and-bolts? If so, where is it?

Erika Saunders's picture
Erika Saunders
6th-8th Special Ed, LS & Mentally Gifted teacher

I think formative assessment falls under so many teaching strategies/techniques/initiatives that get become that latest "buzz words" that administrators hear about and then implement as mandatory. Of course, not much education or training is given but, somehow, teachers are expected to do it do that administration can "see" it in lesson plans and during observations.

As with many teaching strategies, master teachers know how to take the best of what's out their and use it to help their students. I think formative assessment is an important part of educating. It helps you to see where your students are, what they are grasping, and what they need reinforced. It helps to know if you have, in fact, taught the information so that students have mastered it. It can help students know if they are on the right track or need to adjust their thinking.

However, neither it, nor any other initiative, forced into practice, can be the end-all, be-all.

Erika Saunders's picture
Erika Saunders
6th-8th Special Ed, LS & Mentally Gifted teacher

I just re-read my post and saw all the typos I made! I must be getting sleepy! So sorry!!!

Anthony Cody's picture
Anthony Cody
Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

On the spelling rubric, you might have lost a few points, but you scored well for content ;)

FairTest has just posted a fascinating review of assessment practices that is relevant to this discussion. http://www.fairtest.org/position-paper-assessment-learning

An excerpt from the Position Paper on Assessment for Learning, from the third International Conference on Assessment for Learning, Dunedin, New Zealand, March, 2009:

Assessment for Learning' and 'formative assessment' are phrases that are widely used in educational discourse in the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom and Europe . A number of definitions, some originally generated by members of this Conference , are often referred to. However, the ways in which the words are interpreted and made manifest in educational policy and practice often reveal misunderstanding of the principles, and distortion of the practices, that the original ideals sought to promote. Some of these misunderstandings and challenges derive from residual ambiguity in the definitions. Others have stemmed from a desire to be seen to be embracing the concept - but in reality implementing a set of practices that are mechanical or superficial without the teacher's, and, most importantly, the students', active engagement with learning as the focal point. While observing the letter of AfL, this does violence to its spirit.

Anthony Cody's picture
Anthony Cody
Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Posted on my blog this week:


There is a great deal of educational research that now points to the value of formative assessment. This wave began about a dozen years ago, with the publication of an influential paper by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, entitled "Inside the Black Box, Raising Standards through Classroom Assessment." (downloadable here) Black and Wiliam provided strong evidence that when teachers assess student performance routinely as instruction unfolds, this information can be used to provide timely and specific feedback to students, which has a powerful impact on learning. It can also be used to inform instruction, so that teachers know when concepts have been missed or grasped, and what misconceptions may have arisen. These practices are known as formative assessment, and have become a part of most modern curricula and school improvement efforts.

I learned about this research eight years ago, when I was part of the NSF-funded CAPITAL Project (Classroom Assessment Project to Improve Teaching And Learning), led by Dr. J Myron Atkin. Dr. Atkin's hypothesis was that assessment practices flowed from deeply held teacher beliefs. He wanted to see how these practices might change when teachers received new information about more effective models of assessment. We read the research of Black and Wiliam, and even spent some time meeting with them as they described their work and how we might apply it in our classrooms.

Over the next several years I actively experimented with giving more feedback to my students, using rubrics, models of student work, and having students assess their own work as well as that of their peers. This really transformed my teaching. I began to see the value of having a clear set of goals in mind when I began a unit. I could see how much more the students learned when I was clear about these goals, and helped them with these various strategies. I felt empowered because I had been actively engaged in a process that made this work for me, with my particular philosophy and style of teaching.

So if you ask me "does formative assessment work?" I would reply "yes, it does."

But there is a way that good ideas can get turned into bureaucratic nightmares.

My friend teacherken over at Daily Kos alerted me to this story about a new formative assessment system being implemented in Baltimore County, Maryland. The article says:

Baltimore County school administrators have ordered all teachers to begin using a grading system next month that will require them to judge whether each of their students has mastered more than 100 specific skills.

This system is designed to show if students have achieved "mastery" on the skills contained in state standards. The article continues:

It shows that elementary school teachers, who often have classes of up to 25 students, will have to judge each of their students on whether they have mastered more than a hundred skills in as many subjects as they teach. In high schools, where some teachers can have more than 100 students, the task will be no less complicated, teachers say.

Over the course of a year, many teachers would have to make as many as 10,000 marks indicating whether a child had learned a task. For instance, a third-grade teacher would have to determine whether a child has dozens of skills, including the ability to "apply phonics skills to decode words with hard and soft consonants and 2-letter initial consonant blends." And in middle school math, one of the skills listed says, "analyze and describe non-linear functions using the vocabulary of appearance."

The fundamental idea behind formative assessment is that a teacher should be actively monitoring student learning in many ways, on all the important dimensions that we are trying to teach. A conscientious and skilled teacher can do this by a variety of formal and informal assessment practices. We can use exit slips to check for understanding. We can walk around the classroom as students work and observe who is struggling to complete an assignment. We can review student work, and we can have students review the work of their peers. The essence of this is empowering the teacher and elevating her importance as an active participant in the learning process.

But what happens if we do not trust teachers to do this work skillfully and with integrity? Then we create checklists to make sure they are doing every discreet step. We mandate the use of these forms, and require teachers to do thousands of assessments a year. And what should be a powerful tool in the hands of effective teachers can become a row of boxes to be filled in.

I have not used the Baltimore County system, so I would love to hear from anyone who has used it, or similar record-keeping systems.

What do you think of the Baltimore County program? Have you used formative assessment strategies effectively? Have you used anything like the Baltimore County system?

TestBag's picture

Formative assessments help students to construct knowledge in their minds by their own efforts without fear of grades. Such informal assessments help students to make judgements and start taking responsibility of their performance. Learners/Students must develop the capacity to make judgments about their own learning. Otherwise they cannot be effective learners now or in the future
Formative assessments for teachers are instrument of feedback either to reinforce instructions or modify instruction methods suitably
At www.testbag.com, as a team we are working to create knowledge pools to administer formative assessments online for wide range of subjects, topics, keyconcepts with facility to teachers and student to take create and take assessments online with instant feedback and analysis. Teachers can also view assessments of a group classwise or subject wise. Student can also create peer assessment groups leading to collaborative learning among peers

Formative assessments are more effective in a blended learning environment which seamlessly integrates the advantages of traditional content (paper based study material), teacher/instructor directed learning (face to face sessions) with technology mediated (digital and visual) instructions and the convenience of web based assessments to deliver cost effective and flexible learning options for today's learners

Salzabar's picture
I teach middle school students Reading and English Language Development

I believe in short formative assessments. Some tests are not written at a student's reading level. What,in these cases,is really being measured?

Dr. Richard Lawrence Pysch's picture

I teach a course for a local university on the value of formative assessment. For me the equation is curriculum plus assesment should drive instruction. To do differentiation properly and to promote mastery learning it follows that we must continually "dip-stick" our students to see how well or not well they are engaging the curriculum. But, just as learning is the product of the combination of metacognitive and cognitive skills taught so to must we balance formative and summative assessments.

Robert Ryshke's picture
Robert Ryshke
Executive Director of Center for Teaching

I believe the formative assessment field is supplying an important model for classroom teachers, and school administrators, to embrace. I do not believe the model is being oversold. I think the more effort we put into formatively assessing students, and teachers using the information to inform their practice, the better the student learning is in the classroom. The research on this question is extensive and positive. In our work with teachers in the Center for Teaching at The Westminster Schools, we are seeing positive results when formative assessment strategies are applied--Algebra I in 8th grade. I think this work must continue and is not oversold. The literature supporting it is strong.


Bob Ryshke

Jane Peschel's picture
Jane Peschel
Director of Instruction

Years ago, we(teachers)stressed how valuable it was to use our powers of observation to analyze student understanding. We stressed how we could "just tell" when students had gotten "it" by walking around the room, asking group questions, watching students in group interactions. We were told that we needed to record data. Learning needed to be measureable. So millions of skills were to be tested and grades tabulated to determine if students mastered a content area. Our school board just recently issued a position paper indicating that the practice of "grading formative work" should be discontinued as it is seen as a poor practice. Students, after all, should have the opportunity to practice and be given feedback to help them improve rather than a grade that indicates that there is no time for improvement.

The interesting part is that years ago when we were told to make everything measurable, we were angry and said that "this was going to cause students to lose motivation for learning." Now when the board is saying to stop grading everything, the teachers are angry and saying "this is going to cause students to lose motivation for learning!"

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