Is Widespread Formative Assessment A Real Possibility?

Written by: David Casalaspi

Primary Source: Green & Write, January 6, 2016

One of the most intriguing trends in the testing world today involves formative assessment. Indeed, the phrase appears regularly in the education news, and many testing experts believe it holds the key to unlocking a more successful and student-centered educational system.


But what is formative assessment? And how does it differ from more traditional forms of testing? The answer to the former question is still a matter of contestation, but for the most part, formative assessment entails testing designed to provide information about what students are learning while they are learning it. According to the Glossary of Education Reform, formative assessments are “in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course.” A central component of formative assessment is the feedback loop: the process of collecting evidence of student learning, providing useful feedback to students, and adapting instruction accordingly. Formative assessment is designed to be cyclical and continuous, and it puts the individual student at the center of the learning environment.

Rick Stiggins, a champion of formative assessment and previous contributor on this blog, stated in a recent interview in Education Week that formative assessment is an “ongoing, day-to-day classroom-assessment process to give teachers and their students the information they need to understand what comes next in the learning.” While formative assessments can be used to assign grades to students, Stiggins recommends keeping the grade book closed to ensure that students use the assessments solely to focus on their own growth and do not feel emotionally overwhelmed by the act of evaluation.

Formative Assessments v. Summative Assessments

Formative assessment differs from the testing we commonly think of. That kind of testing, known as summative assessment, provides point-in-time snapshots of student learning at the end of a unit or course. An end-of-the-month math test on quadratic equations or a final paper on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream are examples of summative assessments. Summative assessments are designed to give an overall depiction of a student’s status against an objective set of standards. As such, they have limited diagnostic abilities, particularly if test results are not published until weeks or even months later (as is the case with many standardized tests).

To some, formative assessment may sound a lot like everyday teaching practice. After all, teachers regularly demonstrate some aspects of formative assessment. They will ask students to solve math problems on the board, or have them hold up flashcards with the correct answer to a question read aloud. While practices such as these have some formative elements insofar as they provide real-time information about student understanding, the information generated by these exercises is seldom used to alter teachers’ practices or students’ learning targets. In other words, there is no feedback loop.

The Potential of Online Tools

To date, the incorporation of formative assessment into the classroom has been limited because they are quite labor intensive and would require educators to rapidly process a tremendous amount of information. They are also at odds with the existing test-based accountability system which puts high stakes on summative assessments.

However, new educational technologies seem to offer hope for proponents of formative assessments. These new technologies often have the ability to crunch assessment data instantaneously and continuously and alter student learning trajectories and teacher practices accordingly.  Programs like Dreambox Learning, for instance, can show instantly if a student has mastered a mathematical concept and also tell the teacher how long it took a student to answer a problem. Other technologies, such as the online reading curriculum Lightsail and the e-learning program Istation, are adaptive to the needs of each student, generating personalized recommendations based on the student’s demonstrated performance on past exercises. Sometimes, programs will even prevent students from moving on to a new lesson until they have mastered a previous one. This is common in educational video games like JumpStart or programs from the MIT Education Arcade. Others technologies, such as iClickers (commonly used on university campuses) and similar app-based programs like Plickers, provide instant feedback allowing teachers to see which students “get it” and which ones don’t.

With the investments that many states are making in educational technology, the future seems bright for those wishing to experiment more with formative assessment. Indeed, longtime hindrances to formative assessment – the need to process large amounts of data instantaneously and filter it back into student learning goals and pedagogical practices – now seem superable (at least for schools wealthy enough to afford the new technologies, a major equity concern in its own right). However, as with all education reforms, it will be important for districts considering these technologies to both stringently evaluate these products before making any investments and critically evaluate how that technology might interact with existing teacher practices to produce maximum gains in student learning.


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David Casalaspi
David Casalaspi is a third-year student in the Educational Policy Ph.D. Program. Before beginning his graduate studies, he attended the University of Virginia, where he received his B.A. in History and spent his senior year completing a thesis on the rise of federal accountability policy between 1989 and 2002. Additionally, while at UVA, David designed and taught a two-credit seminar for undergraduates on the political history of the American education system and also received some practical experience with policymaking through work with the City Council of Charlottesville, VA. His current research focuses on the politics and history of education, and particularly the way that education rhetoric and issue framing efforts affect the implementation of school reforms.