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?" (

Here is the story. Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black published an article back in 1998 entitled Inside the Black Box. (

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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David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I like formative assessment. We use it at our school, and have had many discussions on exactly what we mean by formative assessment, so it becomes something agreed upon by our community and not pushed on us by our administrators.

Something I've noticed about formative assessment is that sometimes you can give students too much feedback, so much so that they become dependent on your feedback. Ideally you want students to be able to come up with some of the feedback on their learning by themselves, so they can end up not reliant on you for all of their learning.

So formative assessment is good, but our objective should be to wean students from entirely teacher driven assessment, and move them toward being able to judge for themselves if they really understand something.

Susan Clayton's picture

The posts in this discussion indicate there are a variety of ideas on what formative assessment is.

Today I read a piece by Popham in the ASCD New Briefs (link is below) talking about the issue of 'what is formative assessment' - an assessment 'event' or a process? I agree with Popham, formative- assessment is a process, not a single assessment. The International Group cited in one of the posts in this discussion seems to also agree with Popham. This way of thinking about formative-assessment is quite different from thinking about it as an assessment 'event'. The implications for grading and marking practice are significant. As Black and Wiliam observed 10 years ago, using formative-assessment requires many changes in our practice.

Donnah's picture
Pre-Service Educator from NYC

I absolutely agree that formative assessment allow teachers to reflect and students don't have to worry about how they answer because they won't be graded and at the same time, teachers know if they need to go back and review a concept or not.

Fred Welfare's picture
Fred Welfare
High School Science: Biology and Earth Science

There is a peculiar issue that should be addressed about formative assessment. It is not well defined. It is contrasted with summative assesssment. If we define summative assessment, formative assessment will be easier to understand. Summative assessment refers to lengthy periodic tests, for example, ACT/SAT achievement tests, Regents Exams in NYS, and Unit Tests which would probably be given every 3-4 weeks in most High School classes. Formative assessments may or may not be graded, but some record keeping is necessary. For example, an Exit Slip is formative assessment and may be graded - it does not have to be. A comprehension check or POPQuiz is formative and how it is graded may vary: the teacher can grade it, the class can grade it together, students can grade it themselves when the answers are posted. My view is that formative assessment is daily assessment. Putting a grade or recording a notation for student achievement which indicates not only student effort but also whether the teacher needs to reteach a topic or item is meaningful if not necessary. Evidence of frequent assessment as driving teacher decisions is often required if not from a Best Practices perspective then from an administrative point of view. A good example of formative assessment is when teachers reteach a topic and student efforts indicate achievement over time. Learning is a process of movement from the unknown to the known, it is also a process of eliciting and debunking misconceptions. However, as a process, there is a temporal dimension of moments or events of assessment - student work products should indicate this process.

Rax-Ann Miller's picture

Formative Assessment does help teachers to see where their students are at during a lesson but also it helps them to see within themselves what they have failed to make an enduring understanding. Formative assessment is an art that must be practiced. Some teachers still aren't using proper ways to assess their class meaning that they sometimes assess on topic that weren't necessarily taught in the way its presented to them in the assessment.

Jennifer Sickels's picture
Jennifer Sickels
2nd Grade Teacher, ND

As educators it is our job to be ever flexible. I agree with an earlier post that we can use the best of both worlds. Yes formative assessment is a valuable tool. As a 2nd grade teacher, this is a majority of what I use. However, summative assessments can be useful too. We all know that you never judge a student based on one test. We use the MAP test at our school 2 sometimes 3 times a year. This assessment provides a great breakdown of kids to group them according to skills. Then we switch kids and work on those skills that they need work on. Now, these are flexible groups and of course if I know a student well and think they shouldn't belong in that group, I will move them. We just need to be flexible and use what works. Summative assessments will not go away anytime soon so we might as well stop complaining about it.

Fred Welfare's picture
Fred Welfare
High School Science: Biology and Earth Science

At the extremes, formative assessment is purely an attitude or cognitive mode of constant assessment; while summative assessment is the production of any product verbal or written to which a grade or score is given and recorded for grading purposes. This is quite a difference. Summative assessment in these terms can take over everyone's attention in terms of "what counts." I prefer to think of formative as referring to day to day assessments based on student misconceptions of presented information; it can be either a mental note or a score that serves as feedback to the students. Summative as major tests: units, midterms, finals, Regents, SAT/ACT's, etc; but we have to test for grading purposes at some point so when do we switch from the formative mode to a summative point. The issue has to do with settling on a common definition of assessments with students and administrators so that grading is considered fair from the students perspectives and so that teaching is considered valid and rigorous by administrators. A high level of rigor would consider never testing students in a summative manner until formative means have been exhausted and all students are ready for the big test, and subsequently experience success!

geminijys's picture
9th-grade EFL teacher in China

Yes, SAT is not a joke. Too much emphasize on formative assessment negelacting the score may leave students an impression of "easy" grades. Like walking on the balance beam, summative and formative assessments really need to struggle for the good poise . To balance them is the new challenge.

geminijys's picture
9th-grade EFL teacher in China

Yes, SAT is not a joke. Too much emphasize on formative assessment negelacting the score may leave students an impression of "easy" grades. Like walking on the balance beam, summative and formative assessments really need to struggle for the good poise . To balance them is the new challenge.

Kelsey's picture

In reading some of these replies, I agree! How are considered "professionals" when we are constantly being checked on and given more and more types of assessments to do! AND, when do we have the time to do all the extra things that administrators want to see to make sure we are doing our job correctly? We end up rushing through curriculum just to get to the next test because we need to have the tests done by a certain date. As a 1st year teacher, I am overwhelmed with the amount of unusable data collection pieces that we use. My goal this year is not to sink!

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