By Chris Gareis and Leslie Grant, The College of William & Mary
Formative assessment is getting all kinds of attention these days. Open any journal, attend any conference, or glance at any commercial publisher’s catalog, and you will find a plethora of articles, sessions, and off-the-shelf products. Of course, the idea and practice of using formative assessment as part of the teaching and learning process is not new. Michael Scriven is credited with describing the concept in 1967.
We believe that assessment is an inherent element of the teaching and learning process; therefore, in our work with teachers and education leaders, we define formative assessment as the assessment of student learning integrated into the act of teaching (Gareis & Grant, 2008). There are innumerable examples of what formative assessment can look like in the classroom, such as the Socratic Method, Do-Now activities, Exit Cards, Thumbs-Up/Thumbs-Down, personal whiteboards, and many more instructionally based practices for determining the current understanding of students. There are also more formal (and often more reliable) means, such as using performance-based assessments and accompanying scoring rubrics, or administering pre- and post-tests of key knowledge and skills. It is not the instrument or technique that is, in self, formative. It is the teacher’s use of the student’s performance on the instrument or with the technique to help form the student’s learning that makes the assessment formative.
As educators, viewing assessment as an integral component to instruction (and not solely as a summative indicator of learning) makes intuitive sense. So why does it need our attention? We conclude with a few, brief reasons.
First, research during the past decade has increasingly confirmed that teachers’ formative assessment practices in the classroom can significantly contribute to improved student learning. Consider the findings of the Assessment Reform Group from England beginning in 1999. This research team found that students gain roughly the equivalent of one to two grade levels in learning in classrooms that use formative assessment practices effectively. Second, most teachers—veterans and novices alike—are not adequately prepared in the domain of assessment. There is strong evidence of this going back to Rick Stiggins’ work in the early ‘90s and continuing to the present day with recent reports from professional associations such as AACTE and CAEP. Third, we are all aware that we are currently in an era of high-stakes assessment and accountability that places increasing emphasis on external standardized assessments. In our experience, the prolonged and often pejorative emphasis on accountability assessments has wreaked havoc on teachers’ practical use of assessment in the classroom.
To conclude, here is what we believe: Using assessment effectively in the classroom is inherent to good teaching, but, for a variety of reasons, classroom-based assessment practices are diminished and even misused in our current accountability era. Our aim is to help teachers and school leaders reclaim the use of assessment in the classroom as a means to inform teaching and, ultimately, student learning.
If you would like to learn more, join us this summer at the 2014 ASCD Conference on Teaching Excellence. You can search for our session, Teacher-Made Assessments: Connecting Curriculum, Instruction, and Student Learning (1101/1401), on the conference app or here.