Out of curiosity, I recently asked 60 teachers attending a conference session on formative assessment to explain the difference between “summative” and “formative” assessment. To my surprise, the first volunteer described formative assessment as “the formal assessments we give kids to find out what they really know.” Other participant responses varied, from descriptions of in-class observations to a general understanding that any assignment a teacher uses to measure progress are all formative assessments—including online tests administered quarterly by the school district to gather program data.
When asking the question, I had mistakenly believed that most participants would easily describe the two as processes that provide assessment of learning (summative assessment) and assessment for learning (formative assessment).
In a 2007 article in Phi Delta Kappan magazine, Margaret Heritage, assistant director for professional development at the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing (CRESST) at UCLA, defines formative assessment not as a test nor a high-stakes standardized assessment, but as a process of feedback in which a teacher learns about a student’s current level of understanding to determine the next learning steps for that student. Sounds simple enough. Yet, as the teachers’ responses showed, there is still a lot of variation in how teachers define the two types of assessments.
So, why is the concept of formative assessment still so confusing? Part of the fault lies with educational jargon. Educators tend to use the term “formative assessment” to describe a whole host of opportunities to gather evidence of student learning.
In a 2005 book, Preparing Teachers for a Changing World, Lorrie Shepard, et al. tackled this confusing terminology, defining formative assessment as “assessment carried out during the instructional process for the purpose of improving teaching or learning.” What differentiates formative assessment from other classroom-based assessments (such as interim and benchmark assessments) is, first, that the evidence of student learning is not graded and, second, that the information is used immediately to inform instruction. Feedback is a critical part of the process.
My colleagues at McREL and I recently piloted a new mathematics formative assessment program, the Assessment Work Sample Method (AWSM) in a Colorado Springs school district, providing professional development for middle school math teachers to help them learn how to implement classroom formative assessment using authentic student work samples. One teacher in the pilot said, “AWSM has helped me realize that differentiation is crucial. It helps me look for the outliers in my classes—the ones who are overachieving and the ones that are falling behind.”
When implemented effectively, formative assessment provides ongoing feedback to students about where they are relative to their goals, it equips them with resources and suggestions for further exploration, and it encourages questions that propel the learning process. Formative assessment matters because it has been shown to help students learn. Not only does it help with cognitive processes, but it also fully engages students with their learning.
Anne Tweed is McREL’s director of STEM learning. She is the former president of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), and spent 30 years as a high school science teacher. She is the author of Designing Effective Science Instruction: What Works in Science Classrooms (2009), and co-author of the NSTA book, Hard-to-Teach Biology Concepts Revised 2nd Edition: Designing Instruction Aligned to the NGSS (2014).
This is the best explanation I have seen of the difference in assessments. The most difficult part for teachers is not usually understanding what their students need but finding the time to create the variety of assessments while also contacting guidance counselors, special education, parents, filling out administrative reports, and attending faculty meetings. Since the one-room school house of colonial times, teachers are constantly observing students to understand what they know and where they struggle. The increase in class sizes along with the pressures from educational trend setters and increased administrative and legal responsibilities has decreased the time teachers have to truly focus on students. Most teachers would prefer to spend time working to improve experiences for their students. Hopefully, more districts will replace meeting agendas that could be emailed with teachers working with each other for the benefit of their students.
As a long-time teacher and now one who works with them, clearly teachers are in a bind. With all of the initiatives that they have to address, time to effectively focus on student learning becomes the greatest challenge. So key to helpng teachers to help students is to maintain focus on what is most important–our students. So how can we have the time needed? One approach is to stop grading every assignment and focus on feedback. Also working together can save valuable planning time. And as you mention, having administrators that can reduce and/or streamline the administrative responsibilities will help teachers have the time and energy to teach and meet their students needs.
I have to admit, I had lost a clear understanding between the two types of assessment. My school district uses many formative assessments throughout the school year that serve to provide information for meaningful instruction. Although the student scores are not graded, the results are mailed home to parents, which can result in some anxious parent phonecalls. The data from our formative assessments is sorted according to standards and then broken down into specific skills that each student either has mastered or has not mastered. This information helps guide my small group leveled instruction, so I can work with students on specific skills.
I never have thought of formative assessment in this manner. While I agree that it is meant to provide feedback to me the teacher about where to head in terms of instruction, I never thought of it being a two-way street. The need to actually provide feedback to my students in a way that is not in the form of grade, but rather a way in which the teacher and student work together to reach the common goal. However, my question would be how these non-graded assignments look and how that two-way feedback for each student looks? How does it look in a class of 30+ students? To often I find myself giving limited feedback to students, or general feedback, not so much specific to that student.
Dear Ms. Tweed,
Since 2009, I’ve used the text, Teaching Science Through Inquiry-Based Instruction or earlier editions of it in a science methods course for elementary teachers. With the 13th Edition, I am very surprised that the chapter on learning/behavioral objectives was omitted. Is/Was this intentional? I stress this as the most important part of a lesson and on which all other parts depend, so this semester, I found this chapter was omitted.
Dr. Paulette Shockey