What is Formative Assessment?
For many years, there have been differing and often conflicting viewpoints and definitions of what formative assessment is—is it something you can purchase, is it a process, or is it a program? Products and services sold by curriculum and assessment vendors, marketed as “formative assessment” are confusing and misleading. Consider that any test a teacher administers more than one time per year could be misconstrued as being formative, and many districts and states have bought into this concept in significant ways in recent years. Formative assessments are teacher-created, teacher-owned assessments that are collaboratively scored and that provide immediate feedback to students and teachers. Moreover, they help teachers to determine what students know, identify gaps in understanding, and plan future instruction to improve learning (Heritage, 2007). The need to be clear about what formative assessment is has never been more magnified.
Common Formative Assessments 2.0 (CFA 2.0) presents a powerful, research-based process for improving teaching and student learning that is applicable to all standards, all grades, and all content areas. CFA 2.0 is so much more than assessment design. It shows teachers how they can intentionally align standards, instruction, assessment, and data analysis in every unit of study. The CFA 2.0 process is not limited to assessment design only. Rather, it is a system of intentionally aligned components (standards, instruction, assessments, and data analysis) that all work together to improve student learning. Author Larry Ainsworth exceeds client expectations with an updated, contemporary approach to better assessment literacy.
A key premise is that for students to be able to improve, they must develop the capacity to monitor the quality of their own work. This requires that teachers possess an appreciation of what high quality assessments are and that they have the capacity to differentiate between summative, interim, and formative. Instructional systems which do not explicitly provide formative assessment opportunities for students set up potential failure and lower performance ceilings. In CFA 2.0, clients learn how to create powerful scoring guides and success criteria which empower students to monitor their own progress.
Major Forms of Assessment Commonly Used in Schools
Summative assessments are associated with high stakes, end-of-year assessments synonymous with accountability and compliance. The results typically are used to measure mastery of a prescribed set of standards or content and as part of an accountability system or to otherwise inform policy (Perie et al., 2007).
Interim assessments, as implied by the name, fall somewhere in between summative and formative assessments. Sometimes called “benchmark” or medium cycle assessments, interim assessments are typically administered after every quarter and provide teachers with critical data to determine whether standards are being mastered in a timely fashion.
Common Formative Assessments are considered ongoing, short-cycle assessments that provide teachers and students with immediate feedback about student strengths, errors, and misconceptions. They also help to improve teacher professional practice by providing them with a continuous process of gathering evidence and making inferences, all designed to increase higher levels of student cognition. Many experts (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; Sadler, 1989) believe that the timeliness, flexibility, and ongoing nature of formative assessment techniques are most helpful in informing instruction for teachers and closing achievement gaps for students, preparing students for the short- and long-term formative and summative benchmarks they need to attain.
Formative Assessment is About Feedback
Whether formative assessments are scored and graded is less important than the even greater need to provide students with feedback that is accurate, fair, timely, and understandable. Feedback is one of the most powerful influences on achievement (Hattie, 2009). According to Professor John Hattie, feedback has an effect size of .75, which is associated with two to three years of student growth in one instructional year. What Hattie discovered is that not only is feedback among the most robust forms of increasing student achievement, it has even greater value when it is from the student to the teacher.
Quality feedback has so great an impact on student achievement but it remains controversial and inconsistent. The biggest challenge we face about formative evaluation and feedback is how we can transform what we know into action. Before we can consider how quality formative assessments and feedback can change the culture of a school, we have to be clear about what they are not. Formative assessment and feedback is not testing and grading.
There are a number of ways that accurate and thoughtful assessment design can improve teaching, learning, and leadership. After all, the most important aspect about formative assessment is to help determine effective instruction. With a compelling body of evidence behind it, and strategies and techniques designed to empower students and teachers in the assessment and learning processes, implementing the research-based Common Formative Assessment 2.0 can engage students in reaching their full potential. Students and teachers can learn together through assessments when students can close their own achievement gaps and teachers improve the quality of instruction.
The time to more fully embrace the promising strategy of Common Formative Assessments 2.0 for improving student learning has never been more important. When we challenge conventional assessment wisdom, we can improve student motivation, achievement, and behavior. When was the last time a single change in your school accomplished all that?