What’s So Formative About Your Assessment?

Several years ago, I was invited to lead a regional deep curriculum alignment initiative that brought teachers from across Western New York together to define what was understood and what was not about the New York State English Language Arts standards and assessments. Charged with the task of creating a topologically aligned regional curriculum, our group worked collaboratively to accomplish much more than this, and in the end, it was evident that the product that we created was not nearly as valuable as the conversations that unfolded relevant to instructional practice. It was important to all of us that our work attend to the needs of our students. More than anything else, we intended for our efforts to serve kids well.

It was this intention that motivated our study of formative assessment as a practice not a product, and I maintain this understanding today. In my mind, formative assessment is a verb. I agree with Jennifer Borgioli’s assertion that formative assessment isn’t something that students “take.” In fact, formative assessment is something that teachers “do.”

Formative assessment is a process wherein teachers collect evidence to suggest how well students are learning and where gaps in understandings and in skill development might exist. Teachers formatively assess their students so that they may better attend to their needs before they are ever asked to demonstrate mastery on a summative assessment. Rick Stiggins describes formative assessment as a “seemless part of instruction”. It occurs during that phase of learning defined by Madeline Hunter as a “check for understanding.” Larry Ainsworth describes formative assessment as brief in nature. I think we can all agree that the value lies not within the tool itself but in what we are doing with it in response. This is where the tragedy lies: I know that many products are being developed or purchased by school districts eager to “improve performance” but I don’t know how often teachers are being coached to inform their instruction by engaging in powerful formative assessment practices.

I know I sound a bit judgmental and cranky here, but isn’t that the whole point of formative assessment? Isn’t it supposed to help kids and help teachers? And if this is so, then why do many teachers and administrators use formative assessment as a noun rather than a verb? And why is formative assessment looking more like a pre-fab standardized test than an analysis of what our kids are doing well and what they are struggling with? Call me crazy, but I’m thinking our kids know how to take a standardized test by now. I’m also thinking we have plenty of data to suggest how our students perform on them. So I’m confused as to why are we generating more of that data? How does this serve kids? How is it helping teachers? More and more often, I’m discovering that teachers have no appreciation for formative assessment as a process, they aren’t provided time to collaborate around what they are learning about their students as a result, and they haven’t been made aware of the fact that they must adjust their practices in response to identified needs. What they know is that their state assessment scores aren’t high enough and someone in district office thinks that formative assessment (noun) will remedy that problem.

Phyllis Jones, Judith Carr, and Rosemary Ataya share one of the best examples of formative assessment that I’ve ever stumbled upon in their book, A Pig Don’t Get Fatter the More That You Weigh It: Classroom Assessments that Work. According to their example, formative assessment is what takes place during that phase of the writer’s process wherein a student is engaged in repeated drafting, conferring, editing, and revising. It’s during this time that students secure the kind of vital feedback that works to improve their final product. When teachers provide this timely feedback to students, they are able to improve their work before a grade is taken.

We don’t place grades on rough drafts, and we shouldn’t take them during formative assessment either. We place grades on final products. When we place a grade on any assessment, we are suggesting to our students that the time for learning is over and that we are looking for them to demonstrate mastery. As teachers, we are also far less willing or able, at this point, to improve instruction or attend to the needs of our students better. The formative assessment ship has sailed at this point, and while some would argue that we can handle summative assessments in formative ways, I guess I would have to point out that while this is possible, it certainly isn’t the most effective use of our energy, and it certainly isn’t the best way to help kids.

The best way to help students is to invest in our teachers. We do this by engaging them in conversation and by listening to what they have to tell us. We do this by honoring their resistance as an indication of what we must attend to next and by taking the time to do things well rather than doing them quickly. When we approach formative assessment as a process first and foremost, teachers come to own it and they encourage their students to as well, and they are the ones who need to, in the end.

3 Comments

  1. One of the most powerful ways to develop formative assessment practices with teachers is to develop their levels of discussion and dialogue so they have the skills to to talk to, and listen to each other and their students. This learning talk helps build reflective practice. This can be quite challenging hence the need to build a strong professional learning community where support and challenge are both present. Sometimes these underpinning ideas are not developed so formative assessment doesn’t become part of embedded practice.
    http://www.thinkbeyond.co.nz

  2. Angela says:

    I agree–and this is an important point. Formative assessment is often the work of professional learning communities, and often times, I would think it is a natural outgrowth of their processes too. Would it make sense, then, that we invest ourselves first in the establishment of such a community rather than devoting time and resources to the creation of what sometimes merely amounts to “benchmark testing” if our true purpose is to support formative assessment?

  3. katied says:

    This post is exactly what I have been looking for as many in my staff are asking for clarification about formative assessments. I have been keeping my eyes open for articles and resources to explore. I am hoping your points as well as your book suggestion will help me gently nudge many who I work with to think, question and maybe even change their understanding of formative assessments. Thanks!

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