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).