Tom Hierck has been an educator since 1983 in a career that has spanned all grade levels. He has been a teacher, an administrator, a district leader, a department of education project leader, and an executive director.

When is Assessment Formative?

Formative assessment is one of the strategies most often talked about by educators in schools today. Type those two words into a Google search and hundreds of thousands of items are identified. Yet the practice is still confusing and unevenly applied within districts, schools, departments, and classrooms. As for the definition here are two options:

Google says:
“Formative assessment refers to a wide variety of methods that teachers use to conduct in-process evaluations of student comprehension, learning needs, and academic progress during a lesson, unit, or course.”

Black and Wiliam (2009) say:
“…to the extent that evidence about student achievement is elicited, interpreted, and used by teachers, learners, or peers, to make decisions about the next steps in instruction that are likely to be better, or better founded, than the decisions they would have taken in the absence of the evidence that was elicited.”

I’m going to go with the experts in the field as Black and Wiliam have done more to clarify formative assessment through their landmark paper “Inside the Black Box: Raising Standards Through Classroom Assessment” than perhaps any other researchers in the field. I’m also reminded of the expectation of my high school English teacher who stressed the importance of the 5 W’s when analyzing evidence. Based on Black and Wiliam’s definition of formative assessment, they play out like this:

Anyone. They speak to teachers, learners, or peers. All play a key role in formative assessment and all benefit from effective assessment practice. Educators have also shared with me the notion of administration and parents also playing key roles and that may be valid but it’s outside the scope of the definition above.

Decisions about the next steps in instruction and these are not just made by the teacher in isolation. The key here is also the option offered by Black and Wiliam—choices that are better or better founded. In other words, the practice may validate that the teacher was on the right track and they will now have evidence to substantiate that.

Short cycle assessments aligned with each of the learning targets (standards) allows teachers and students to respond when the gap is smallest. The longer the time between assessments, the bigger the potential gap and the less likely that effective re-teaching and re-assessing can occur. Waiting until the end of an extensive time period (the unit for example) nullifies the value of formative assessment to make a difference. It belies instructional agility and reduces assessment to a rank and sort tool.

Again, the purpose of formative assessment is to improve the likelihood that learning takes place. As Wiliam and Leahy suggest the importance of gathering formative assessment data “arises as a consequence of the fact students do not always learn what we teach, and we had better find out what they did learn before we try to teach them anything else”.

In the professional learning communities that begin in each teacher’s classroom, extend to their department or grade level teams, and cross through a school-wide approach.

The time crunch educators face, the expectations driven by external assessments, and the myriad of initiatives in schools today occasionally leads to a lack of clarity around formative assessment. Some challenges include:

  • Assessment as an irregular practice driven more by upcoming reporting requirements and delivered more to validate than to inform.
  • Rather than having a direct relationship to the learning, it is used to rank and sort.
  • Assessment is seen as a static process; as a result it misinforms teachers and students about what has been accomplished and what to do next.
  • A lack of meaning for both students and teachers.
  • No purpose to the work or a lack of clarity to the purpose.

Teachers may feel they are following guidelines that appear to be aligned with formative assessment (using the same tests as colleagues, following the same pacing calendar, talking about results) but in the absence of intentionally addressing the five W’s and adhering to the vision proposed by Black and Wiliam, the real strength and value of formative assessment may never come to fruition. Doing formative assessment lite (FA-lite) is akin to doing no formative assessment at all.

Sadler (2006) strongly endorses the work of Black and Wiliam and cements the overall effectiveness of the practice when he states:
I conclude by reiterating the position reached by Black & Wiliam’s review: Formative assessment does make a difference, and it is the quality, not just the quantity, of feedback that merits our closest attention. By quality of feedback, we now realise we have to understand not just the technical structure of the feedback (such as its accuracy, comprehensiveness and appropriateness) but also its accessibility to the learner (as a communication), its catalytic and coaching value, and its ability to inspire confidence and hope.


  1. Kristan

    I love this brief but effective article. I am doing a summer training on formative assessment activity/suggestions for what we call here in Texas Figure 19 standards. I am going to lead with a discussion of this great article; then I’m going to move into some examples and suggested ‘activities’ that can be used for a daily/weekly ‘Fig 19 Check Up”!!

    • Tom Hierck

      Thanks Kristan. I’d love to hear how the session goes and see the work you’ve created. Keep me posted!

  2. Cory Henwood

    Great article thats cuts to the important aspects of formative assessment. I agree that pseudo FA or FA lite as you say is not worth much, but practiced widely unfortunately. The difference generally is in feedback. I discuss this more at my website appreciate whatever thoughts you can add. Good work here as usual Tom.

    • Tom Hierck

      Thanks Cory. Great insights in your article that readers should check out!


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