When I work with teachers who are writing and using formative assessments in their instructional practices, they will sometimes tell me that while they understand how important formative assessment is, they also feel that they are wasting instructional time because they already know which of their students have learned the targets being assessed. They say that some students always need help, and others have asked questions during the instruction that show they don’t even have a basic understanding of the target being taught. For these students, they wonder why they should even give them the formative assessment.
I can remember thinking when I first got started with formative assessment that its purpose was to identify students who haven’t learned something that had been identified as “essential” that had already been taught. I understood that the formative assessment was timed to happen while I was still teaching the unit so that I could help students before the final unit test. The more I learned and experienced, however, I became aware that the purpose of the assessment is not just to identify which students need help, but also to identify what their misunderstandings or misconceptions are about the learning targets themselves. Consider this definition of formative assessment by Dylan Wiliam:
An assessment functions formatively to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or their peers to make decisions about next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have made in the absence of evidence. (William, D., p.43)
He suggests that formative assessments are about making better decisions for students than a teacher would have without the information from the assessment. The purpose, then, of formative assessment is not just to determine proficiency on a learning target, but also to collect information from the students about their learning related to this target.
Good formative assessments have three specific characteristics to help teachers accomplish this purpose. The first is that the formative assessment must occur during the unit of instruction, and after the initial instruction, about the essential learning target. Consider, for example, an eighth grade teacher who is teaching the learning target, “Analyze how an author acknowledges or responds to conflicting evidence or viewpoints.” After the lesson or lessons for the class on this target, the teacher provides a short formative assessment asking student to read a political speech—that they haven’t yet discussed—and analyze the way the author presents and responds to conflicting evidence. The teacher is then able to plan the corrective instruction, which will occur during the following lesson to help students who weren’t able to do the analysis.
The second characteristic is that the formative assessment is learning target specific. In order to be diagnostic, the assessment should be as precise as possible in describing student learning. Most standards require students to know and do a number of different things to accomplish the standard. The things that they must know and do are the learning targets for the students. Consider the 7th grade math standard, “Know the formulas for the area and circumference of a circle and use them to solve problems; give an informal derivation of the relationship between the circumference and area of a circle.” When students are proficient on this standard they will be able to choose the correct solution pathway to solve real-life or realistic problems involving circles and be able to explain how they solved them. Formative assessments would be designed to show whether they can solve problems involving the area and circumference of a circle. By designing the formative assessment around the learning targets, the resulting information is much more precise about what the student has/has not yet learned.
The third characteristic is closely related to the one above; they should diagnose more specifically why and how the student’s learning broke down. By writing the assessment around learning targets, the teachers can identify for each learning target which students are or are not yet proficient. This is where Wiliam’s definition becomes so important. An assessment that simply tells teachers if a student is proficient has only done half the job. The assessment also needs to reveal information about student understanding around that target so that the teachers know exactly what to do next. When a teacher uses constructed response questions that require students to reveal their thinking, or performance assessments that require a product, teachers can use student work to know more specifically where a student’s learning broke down. This provides the information needed to plan quality corrective instruction. Thus, even when a teacher can anticipate a student will not be proficient, if the items are written in a diagnostic way, the student work helps reveal what confusion or misinformation the student has about the essential learning target.
Therefore, how the assessment is designed—around specific learning targets and using items that reveal student thinking—can make formative assessment well worth the time it takes, allowing teachers to align their corrective instruction to the content and rigor of the essential learning targets to make it more effective.
Bailey, K., & Jakicic, C. (in press). Simplifying common assessment. Solution Tree: Bloomington, IL.
Wiliam, D. (2011). Embedded formative assessment. Solution Tree: Bloomington, IL.