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The Unfulfilled Promise of Formative Assessment

I still remember when I first learned about the role of assessment in school. During our new teacher orientation, the principal explained how many assessments were needed each quarter, how they were to be recorded, and how to communicate them to students and parents. Formative assessment wasn’t even mentioned. I leaned over to the teacher in the next seat and asked, “What are assessments?”

“You know, tests and quizzes — they’re your grades.”

The message was clear: our responsibility was to accurately and effectively rate students’ proficiency in our content area. For our ratings to be beyond reproach, we needed a paper trail.

I was bewildered by the complexity and nuances — the very idea that grading was such a significant part of our role came as a bit of a surprise. That we might be called upon to defend our grades against skeptics was a complete shock.

Such an introduction set a clear tone about our roles as teachers. We were to rate and sort students by intellect and achievement. We should expect that all students would vie for the top spots, and we needed to ensure that we awarded those spots accurately and transparently.

The Promise of Formative Assessment

While such a traditional understanding of assessment still persists, it has been supplemented by a new paradigm: formative assessment. Rather than using assessment simply to evaluate student performance after a unit of study, teachers are now asked to use formative assessment to guide instruction. Future Ready Schools NJ lists formative assessment as a key benefit of digital assessment, which itself is a Priority 1 indicator of a school’s “future readiness.”

As with many education initiatives, the idea has a solid rationale and the potential to dramatically improve our approaches to teaching and learning. Ever since the term was introduced by Michael Scriven in 1967, though, formative assessment has often been misunderstood. Even with the best intentions, formative assessment is tough to implement with a curriculum designed around pacing guides and standardized tests.

Grades become part of a student’s record that will open doors to future opportunities — or slam those doors in their faces.

In fact, it’s quite common for teachers to be told to use assessment to guide instruction while at the same time being expected to remain in lock-step with a school or district pacing guide. Below are some common challenges faced by teachers interested in using formative assessment, along with tips to address each.

Formative or Summative?

Many educators with graduate degrees in education (myself included) still struggle to differentiate between formative and summative assessment. Some suggest that a quiz is formative because it helps a teacher or student adjust her approach before a unit test. Others respond that any assessment which factors into a students’ grade cannot be formative.

The debate about assessments leads to fundamental issues about the role of grading and feedback in schools. Grades play multiple roles, which are often at odds. If grades are a tool to help students understand their own progress, they can’t also serve as a high-stakes reporting tool. If they’re meant to be motivational, they should reflect what students can control (such as effort) rather than grade-level performance. If they are meant to help schools and teachers to understand and support student needs, they can’t also be used as reports to outside organizations.

The current grading system inevitably puts stakeholders at odds with one another. Students and parents regularly clash with teachers for higher grades. Teachers attempt to be supportive, while also trying to be fair and accurate. Administrators are caught in the middle. And the strife is understandable. Grades become part of a student’s record that will open doors to future opportunities — or slam those doors in their faces.

All Assessment is Formative

A teacher needs to be a champion of his students – rooting for all to reach their highest potential. When a teacher also serves as an evaluator of student worth, that role can become compromised. While few teachers have the choice of whether to issue grades, we should look for every way possible separate grading from feedback.

Grades can increase compliance, while actually decreasing students’ motivation for meaningful learning.

Feedback is valuable information that supports student growth. Feedback can be formal or informal; it can come from teachers, peers, or even self-reflection. If your school requires that you assign grades, do all you can to minimize the role that grades play in the learning process. I’ve become very skeptical about the ability of grades to increase motivation. In fact, there is mounting evidence that grades can increase compliance, while actually decreasing students’ motivation for meaningful learning.

As far as a classroom teacher is concerned, all grades should be seen as formative. Our assessments should provide us and our students information that supports on-going learning. Summative assessments are better suited to evaluating schools and programs, so let standardized tests handle summative assessment.

The Iceberg Problem

Even schools and teachers who embrace formative assessment will eventually collide with what I call ‘The Iceberg Problem.’ Most assessments simply tell us whether or not a student has mastered a given standard. Teachers are expected to use that understanding to provide targeted support.

Unfortunately, these assessments are of limited benefit in planning instruction. If we target instruction based on areas of difficulty, we are merely chipping away at the tip of the iceberg. With enough scaffolding, a student may appear proficient, but it is unlikely they will be able to demonstrate mastery on their own.

The real reason for student difficulty often originates one or more grade levels below the area of apparent struggle. These skill gaps constitute the bulk of the iceberg.

The Sliding-Scale of Proficiency

To truly understand student needs, we need to view proficiency as a continuum across grade levels.  Teachers can work backward from grade level content until they find the level at which the student is proficient. Digital and adaptive assessments are a useful tool for this purpose.

Consider a student struggling to “use ratio language and notation for multiplicative comparisons.” Understanding the 6.RP standards requires an understanding of fractions developed through grades 3-5 fraction standards. If a student has not mastered the concept of a fraction as parts of a whole (3.NF), we cannot simply provide additional support on the grade 6 standard. We have to start where the student is proficient.

Unfortunately, few teachers have access to this type of “sliding-scale” data on their students, let alone the instructional resources to target gaps from prior grade levels. Working with an education consultant can help your school address the Iceberg Problem and make the most of student data.

As more and more educators are recognizing the limitations of the industrial approach to education, few practical solutions exist.

The One-Bridge Problem

Even when teachers are able to accurately identify student starting points, finding ways to address those gaps can be challenging. Most schools are built on a one-size-fits-all model of education. Large class sizes, standardized tests, and textbook-centered curriculum all support teaching every student the same material, at the same pace, and in the same way.

As more and more educators are recognizing the limitations of the industrial approach to education, few practical solutions exist. Many schools continue to rely on a content-coverage approach that provides instruction on grade level standards, regardless of student readiness. 

To make formative assessment and differentiation a reality in schools, we have to acknowledge that such priorities are not consistent with a content coverage approach. Some administrators assert that teachers can follow a pacing guide and use “scaffolding” to support students who are behind grade level. It’s a nice idea, but I haven’t actually seen an educator who can accomplish this.

Imagine 25 people running a marathon – some start at mile 22, others at mile 13 or mile 0. Some are faster than others. The motivation and focus of the runners varies widely as well. Your job is to ensure everyone crosses each mile marker at the same time.

The Three-Bridges Approach

The Three-Bridges Design for Learning was developed as a practical approach to balancing content coverage and differentiation. Instructional time is split into three categories: personalized learning, inquiry-based learning, and content coverage.

During personalized learning, students learn at their own level and pace. Without technology, it is nearly impossible to use formative assessment to differentiate the content each student learns. Online platforms also provide useful data and create opportunities for teachers to meet with small groups or individual students.

On inquiry learning days, students learn by exploring novel situations. Each student gains something unique from the same activity. This approach supports the development of both academic and social-emotional skills. The activities include games, as well as problem- and project-based learning. 

There is also time allocated to the more traditional, content coverage approach. As teachers gain experience with the 3-Bridges approach, it is possible to move away from direct instruction, weaving content coverage into the personalized and inquiry-based bridges.

Fulfilling the Promise

Formative assessment can, and should, play a crucial role in supporting student-centered learning. By thinking outside the box, educators can can design transformative learning experiences. In order for formative assessment to be successful, though, all stakeholders must reconsider assumptions about learning.

Teachers need the flexibility, as well as professional development and resources, to respond to data. Many schools benefit from support in planning curriculum that responds to student needs. If your school would benefit from support with formative assessment, explore our services or contact us.

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