Formative assessment: What it is and what it is not

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After reviewing literature on formative and summative assessment, participants will state several attributes of what formative assessment is, and what it is not.

Participants will list several types of formative assessment techniques that could be added to their teaching practice.

Formative assessment....what's that?

So, what is formative assessment? How is it different from the "teach-test-grade" cycle that we often see in classrooms?

Paul Black and Chris Harrison, authors of the influential pamphlet Working Inside the Black Box, give an overview in this video about what they see as the key features of formative assessment. As you watch this video and read the article by Garrison and Ehringhaus, make a list of what you think the characteristics of formative assessment are. What characteristics are not a part of formative assessment?

Formative Assessment

Formative and Summative Assessment in the Classroom

Formative verses Summative Assessment

“Summative assessments are typically used to evaluate the effectiveness of instructional programs at the end of a unit or the end of the year. The goal of summative assessments is to judge student competency after instruction is complete.” (Fisher, page 4) Summative assessments answer the question, “have the students met the objectives of the intended curriculum”, often for those looking to judge the effectiveness of educational methods. This is the high stakes testing model; our end of grade testing. Unfortunately, many of our end-of-unit tests fall into this category as well. The purpose of summative assessments ends up as a reporting of student progress to others and is not used to develop learning pathways for a child

Formative assessment replaces judgmental assessment practices with information exchange and cooperation”. (Brookhart, page 52-53) “Formative assessments are ongoing assessments, reviews and observations in a classroom. Teachers use formative assessment to improve the instructional methods and provide student feedback throughout the teaching and learning process.” (Fisher, page 4) These assessments are not the end, but the means to an end. “Formative assessment is about sharing information. It involves teacher-to-student communication-teachers showing students where teachers believe learning should be headed and what students need to do to get there. However, the real power of formative assessment comes from the addition of student-to-teacher communication, where the students show the teacher where their knowledge is deep, shallow, or stalled.” (Brookhart, page 52) This communication between student and teacher allows for misconceptions and misunderstandings in a student’s learning to be corrected, indeed it is a way for students to “learn from their mistakes”. It is frequent and occurs during instruction, checking for student understanding and shaping the next day’s lesson. The data collected is used to improve student learning; it is not a grade that goes into a grade book. An assessment becomes formative when it is 1) used to identify a student’s level of mastery, 2) generates extra support for students who are struggling and 3) gives students another opportunity to demonstrate their learning after the intervention. “Assessment of understanding should be thought of in terms of a collection of evidence over time instead of an event-a single moment in time test at the end of instruction”. (Fisher, page 7) If our purpose is to help students learn and grow, to learn from their mistakes (as we do in life), using assessments as a formative process is imperative


Review one of the units you have taught in the last few weeks. What type of assessments have you included in this unit? Are you using summative assessment, formative assessment, or a combination of both? Reflecting on your learning from the video and article, what types of formative assessments could be added to this unit to give you more information about student understanding?

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