ERIC Identifier: ED470206
Publication Date: 2002-10-00
Author: Boston, Carol
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Assessment and Evaluation College Park MD.
The Concept of Formative Assessment. ERIC Digest.
While many educators are highly focused on state tests, it is important to
consider that over the course of a year, teachers can build in many
opportunities to assess how students are learning and then use this information
to make beneficial changes in instruction. This diagnostic use of assessment to
provide feedback to teachers and students over the course of instruction is
called formative assessment. It stands in contrast to summative assessment,
which generally takes place after a period of instruction and requires making a
judgment about the learning that has occurred (e.g., by grading or scoring a
test or paper). This article addresses the benefits of formative assessment and
provides examples and resources to support its implementation.
PURPOSE AND BENEFITS OF FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT
Wiliam (1998b) define assessment broadly to include all activities that teachers
and students undertake to get information that can be used diagnostically to
alter teaching and learning. Under this definition, assessment encompasses
teacher observation, classroom discussion, and analysis of student work,
including homework and tests. Assessments become formative when the information
is used to adapt teaching and learning to meet student needs.
When teachers know how students are progressing and where they are having
trouble, they can use this information to make necessary instructional
adjustments, such as reteaching, trying alternative instructional approaches, or
offering more opportunities for practice. These activities can lead to improved
Black and Wiliam (1998a) conducted an extensive research review of 250
journal articles and book chapters winnowed from a much larger pool to determine
whether formative assessment raises academic standards in the classroom. They
concluded that efforts to strengthen formative assessment produce significant
learning gains as measured by comparing the average improvements in the test
scores of the students involved in the innovation with the range of scores found
for typical groups of students on the same tests. Effect sizes ranged between .4
and .7, with formative assessment apparently helping low-achieving students,
including students with learning disabilities, even more than it helped other
students (Black and Wiliam, 1998b).
Feedback given as part of formative assessment helps learners become aware of
any gaps that exist between their desired goal and their current knowledge,
understanding, or skill and guides them through actions necessary to obtain the
goal (Ramaprasad, 1983; Sadler, 1989). The most helpful type of feedback on
tests and homework provides specific comments about errors and specific
suggestions for improvement and encourages students to focus their attention
thoughtfully on the task rather than on simply getting the right answer
(Bangert-Drowns, Kulick, & Morgan, 1991; Elawar & Corno, 1985). This
type of feedback may be particularly helpful to lower achieving students because
it emphasizes that students can improve as a result of effort rather than be
doomed to low achievement due to some presumed lack of innate ability. Formative
assessment helps support the expectation that all children can learn to high
levels and counteracts the cycle in which students attribute poor performance to
lack of ability and therefore become discouraged and unwilling to invest in
further learning (Ames, 1992; Vispoel & Austin, 1995).
While feedback generally originates from a teacher, learners can also play an
important role in formative assessment through self-evaluation. Two experimental
research studies have shown that students who understand the learning objectives
and assessment criteria and have opportunities to reflect on their work show
greater improvement than those who do not (Fontana & Fernandes, 1994;
Frederikson & White, 1997). Students with learning disabilities who are
taught to use self-monitoring strategies related to their understanding of
reading and writing tasks also show performance gains (McCurdy & Shapiro,
1992; Sawyer, Graham, & Harris, 1992).
EXAMPLES OF FORMATIVE ASSESSMENT
Since the goal of
formative assessment is to gain an understanding of what students know (and
don't know) in order to make responsive changes in teaching and learning,
techniques such as teacher observation and classroom discussion have an
important place alongside analysis of tests and homework.
Black and Wiliam (1998b) encourage teachers to use questioning and classroom
discussion as an opportunity to increase their students' knowledge and improve
understanding. They caution, however, that teachers need to make sure to ask
thoughtful, reflective questions rather than simple, factual ones and then give
students adequate time to respond. In order to involve everyone, they suggest
strategies such as the following:
Invite students to discuss their thinking about a question or topic in pairs or
small groups, then ask a representative to share the thinking with the larger
group (sometimes called think-pair-share).
Present several possible answers to a question, then ask students to vote on
Ask all students to write down an answer, then read a selected few out loud.
Teachers might also assess students' understanding in the following ways:
Have students write their understanding of vocabulary or concepts before and
Ask students to summarize the main ideas they've taken away from a lecture,
discussion, or assigned reading.
Have students complete a few problems or questions at the end of instruction and
Interview students individually or in groups about their thinking as they solve
Assign brief, in-class writing assignments (e.g., "Why is this person or event
representative of this time period in history?)
(The November/December 1997 issue of Clearinghouse magazine is devoted to
practical ideas for formative assessment. See especially Mullin and Hill for
ideas for history classes, McIntosh for mathematics, Childers and Lowry for
science, and Bonwell for higher education.)
In addition to these classroom techniques, tests and homework can be used
formatively if teachers analyze where students are in their learning and provide
specific, focused feedback regarding performance and ways to improve it. Black
and Wiliam (1998b) make the following recommendations:
Frequent short tests are better than infrequent long ones.
New learning should be tested within about a week of first exposure.
Be mindful of the quality of test items and work with other teachers and outside
sources to collect good ones.
Portfolios, or collections of student work, may also be used formatively if
students and teachers annotate the entries and observe growth over time and
practice (Duschl & Gitomer, 1997).
RESOURCE FOR TEACHERS INTERESTED IN FORMATIVE
Formative assessment is tightly linked with instructional
practices. Teachers need to consider how their classroom activities,
assignments, and tests supports learning aims and allow students to communicate
what they know, then use this information to improve teaching and learning. Two
practitioner-oriented books that offer many helpful ideas about, and examples
of, classroom assessments are A Practical Guide to Alternative Assessment
(Herman, Aschbacher, and Winters, 1992) and Classroom Assessment Techniques: A
Handbook for College Teachers (Angelo and Cross, 1993).
The Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory has put large sections of its
helpful training kit, Improving Classroom Assessment: A Toolkit for Professional
Developers online at http://www.nwrel.org/assessment/toolkit98.asp.%20The%20
readings, overheads, exercises, and handouts could help groups of teachers think
through assessment issues in their schools. The Assessment Training Institute
provides some free newsletter and journal articles about classroom assessment on
its Web site (http://www.assessmentinst.com/) as well as publications, videos,
and training sessions for a fee. A recent issue of the Maryland Classroom
newsletter from the Maryland State Department of Education features a lead
article on effective feedback in the classroom with example responses from an
assignment involving persuasive text
The National Research Council (2001) has produced a useful, accessible book
on classroom assessment in science that contains many interesting vignettes
about how teachers can adjust their teaching based on their observations,
questioning, and analysis of student work. While the anecdotes are specific to
K-12 science teaching, the chapters about the documented value of formative
assessment on classroom achievement, as well as what it requires in terms of
teacher development and how classroom assessment relates to summative assessment
such as state tests, have broad applicability. See
Assessment and the National Science Education Standards.
Training and professional development in the area of classroom assessment are
essential in order to provide individual teachers with the time and support
necessary to make changes. Teachers need time to reflect upon their assessment
practices and benefit from observing and consulting with other teachers about
effective practices and about changes they would like to make (NRC, 2001). Black
and Wiliam (1998b) recommend setting up local groups of schools-elementary and
secondary; urban, suburban, and rural-to tackle formative assessment at the
school level while collaborating with other local schools. They anticipate that
challenges will be different in different subject areas and suggest that
external evaluators could help teachers with their work and collect evidence of
effectiveness. They also point to potential conflicts between state assessments
and classroom assessments, where the external tests can shape what goes on in
the classroom in a negative way if the emphasis is on drill and test preparation
versus teachers' best judgment about learning.
Teachers generally need to undertake or participate in some summative
assessment as a basis for reporting grades or meeting accountability standards.
However, the task of summative assessment for external purposes remains quite
different from the task of formative assessment to monitor and improve progress.
While state tests provide a snapshot of a student's performance on a given day
under test conditions, formative assessment allows teachers to monitor and guide
students' performance over time in multiple problem-solving situations. Future
research might examine how teachers deal with the relationship between their
formative and summative roles, how teachers' classroom assessments relate to
external test results, and how external test results can be made more helpful in
terms of improving student performance.
Ames, C. (1992). Classrooms: Goals, structures,
and student motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 84 (3): 261-271.
Angelo, T.A., and Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom Assessment Techniques: A
Handbook for College Teachers, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Bangert-Drowns, R.L., Kulick, J.A., and Morgan, M.T. (1991). The
instructional effect of feedback in test-like events. Review of Educational
Research, 61 (2): 213-238.
Black, P., and Wiliam, D. (1998a). Assessment and classroom learning.
Assessment in Education, 5 (1): 7-74.
Black, P. and Wiliam, D. (1998b). Inside the black box: Raising standards
through classroom assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 80 (2): 139-148. (Available
Duschl, R.D. and Gitomer, D.H. (1997). Strategies and challenges to change
the focus of assessment and instruction in science classrooms. Educational
Assessment, 4 (1): 37-73.
Elawar, M.C., and Corno, L. (1985). A factorial experiment in teachers'
written feedback on student homework: Changing teacher behaviour a little rather
than a lot. Journal of Educational Psychology, 77 (2): 162-173.
Fontana, D., and Fernandes, M. (1994). Improvements in mathematics
performance as a consequence of self-assessment in Portuguese primary school
pupils. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 64 (3): 407-417.
Frederiksen, J.R., and White, B.J. (1997). Reflective assessment of students'
research within an inquiry-based middle school science curriculum. Paper
presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research
Association, Chicago, IL.
Herman, J.L., Ashbacher, P.R., and Winters, L. (1992). A Practical Guide to
Alternative Assessment. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and
McCurdy, B.L., and Shapiro, E.S. (1992). A comparison of teacher monitoring,
peer monitoring, and self-monitoring with curriculum-based measurement in
reading among students with learning disabilities. Journal of Special Education,
26 (2): 162-180.
Ramaprasad, A. (1983). On the definition of feedback. Behavioral Science, 28
Sadler, D.R. (1989). Formative assessment and the design of instructional
systems. Instructional Science, 18 (2): 119-144.
Sawyer, R. J., Graham, S., and Harris, K.R. (1992). Direct teaching, strategy
instruction, and strategy instruction with explicit self-regulation: Effects on
the composition skills and self-efficacy of students with learning disabilities.
Journal of Educational Psychology, 84 (3): 340-352.
Vispoel, W.P., and Austin, J.R. (1995). Success and failure in junior high
school: A critical incident approach to understanding students' attributional
beliefs. American Educational Research Journal, 32 (2): 377-412.