A Brief History of Formative Assessment
As with most effective teaching methods
and practices, individual teachers have probably used formative assessment
throughout history. Indeed, we could claim Socrates as an early practitioner.
Peppering his students with questions that probed and provoked, he used their
responses to measure their learning and guide his instruction; this is the
primary attribute of formative assessment.
Although teachers have long used
strategies like the Socratic method and other forms of meaningful questioning,
the term “formative assessment” is a relatively new one. Its contemporary use
is often traced to Michael Scriven (1967), who used “formative” and “summative”
to indicate differences in both the goals for collecting evaluation information
and how that information is then used. Scriven explained that while a program
is in the planning and developmental stages, it is still malleable, and the
information gathered from evaluation can therefore contribute to change in the
program. He called evaluation for this purpose of improving “formative.” Once a
program has been created and implemented, Scriven argued, evaluations can only
yield information to determine whether the program has met its intended goals.
Scriven called this final gathering of information a “summative evaluation.”
Benjamin Bloom was one of the first to
apply the concepts of formative versus summative to educational assessment,
helping to lay the foundations for the concept of mastery learning (Bloom,
Hastings, & Madaus, 1971). The purpose of mastery learning was to ensure
that students didn`t move forward to the next level of learning until they had
demonstrated mastery of the learning objectives set for the current level. This
concept, in turn, became the basis for modular instruction, widespread in the 1970s,
in which students learned from self-directed packets, or modules of
instruction. When a student successfully completed one packet, he or she could
move on to the next packet, proceeding through modules until all objectives
were met. In theory, mastery learning resembles today`s scaffolding, but in
practice, students worked mostly in isolation without much teacher support or
In the decades following, formative
assessment began to be more widely explored. States considered ways to embed it
in standardized tests. Bloom continued his theoretical work, examining several
issues relating to formative assessment. He identified two essential elements
of formative learning: feedback for students and corrective conditions for all
important components of learning (Bloom, 1977). He also argued that formative
information could be used to divide the class into cooperative groups based on
the corrections required. From this point, teachers could differentiate
instruction to meet the needs of individual students through selected teaching
strategies and corrective responses (Bloom, 1976).
In New Zealand, Terry Crooks studied the
effect of classroom assessment practices on students and reported on their
potential to emphasize what is important to learn and positively affect student
motivation. Crooks (1988) asserted that classroom assessment “appears to be one
of the most potent forces influencing education. Accordingly it deserves very
careful planning and considerable investment of time from educators” (p. 476).
Around the same time, Sadler (1989) reasoned that assessment is most effective
when students can monitor the quality of their own work through specific
provisions that are incorporated directly into instruction.
Perhaps the biggest step forward in the
embrace of formative assessment came in 1998, when Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam
completed a meta-analysis of more than 250 research studies on the topic. Their
findings, published as “Inside the Black Box,” make a compelling case for
formative assessment. Black and Wiliam`s review concluded that “there is no
other way of raising standards for which such a strong prima facie case can be
made” (1998, p. 148).
“Inside the Black Box” led the way for
many educational leaders to define and apply formative assessment in
classrooms, not just in the United States but throughout the world. New
Zealand, Australia, and Great Britain have been especially strong leaders in
this movement. The recent groundswell in interest and information is creating
an imperative to change how we think about and use assessment.
for Formative Assessment
The 1998 Black and William study provided
evidence that formative assessment can make a difference in learning outcomes
at all grade levels. This review of research studies, journal articles, and
book excerpts concluded that “formative assessment shows an effect size of
between .4 and .7, the equivalent of going from the 50th percentile to the
65th” (p. 141). An effect size is a comparison of a range of scores of students
exposed to a specific practice to those of students who were not exposed to the
practice. Black and Wiliam drew additional conclusions, each of which is worthy
of further research:
The success of formative assessment is
highly related to how teachers use it to adjust teaching and learning
Effective learning is based on active
Enhanced feedback is crucial to improved
There is a link between formative
assessment and self-assessment.
More information about the Black and
Wiliam study is available through the Web site of Kings College London (www.kcl.ac.uk/schools/sspp/education/research/groups/assess.html).
At the National Research Council,
Bransford, Brown, and Cocking`s work How People Learn (1999)
became the basis for the book Knowing What Students Know (Pellegrino,
Chudowsky, & Glaser, 2001) and drew the following conclusions:
An assessment plan must come first, not
last, in the educational process.
Assessment, by necessity, integrates
knowledge, skills, procedures, and dispositions.
Assessment as a diagnosis of student
progress shifts the emphasis from summative to formative.
In a follow-up to “Inside the Black Box,”
Wiliam, Lee, Harrison, and Black (2004) examined the achievement of secondary
students in math and science who were exposed and not exposed to formative
assessment. Teachers involved in the study were trained and supported in their
use of classroom-based formative assessment. The research team measured the
effects of formative assessment on learning outcomes and found a mean effect
size of 0.32 when exposed to the intervention. Also in 2004, Ruiz-Primo and
Furtak measured the effect of three formative assessment strategies—eliciting,
recognizing, and using information—in the science classroom. They found that
the quality of teachers` formative assessment practices was positively linked
to the students` level of learning.
The research base for formative assessment
will continue to grow, and we look forward to additional data that can
strengthen the case for assessing formatively, help confirm best practices for
teachers, and pinpoint the most effective strategies for responding to data and
for measuring formative assessment`s effect on learning outcomes.
Forward with Formative Assessment
In recent years, recommendations for including
high-quality formative assessment as an integral part of a larger and more
balanced assessment system has come from many groups and organizations, among
them the Joint Committee on Standards for Educational Evaluation (2002) and the
National Council on Measurement in Education (1995). Content- and
level-specific organizations, such as the National Council of Teachers of
Mathematics, the National Science Teachers Association, and the National Middle
School Association, have also endorsed formative assessment as a way to advance
Although influential organizations and
education thought-leaders have reached a general consensus about the benefits
of formative assessment, teacher education and training efforts lag behind. As
research has shown, teachers get little training or support in assessment and
often turn to their untrained peers for information (Black & Wiliam, 1998;
Shepard, 2000; Stiggins, 2001, 2002), and we are left with a gap between what
we know is effective assessment practice and how most teachers use assessment
in the classroom. This deficit in teacher knowledge and practice was the basis
of my own doctoral dissertation, in which I concluded that secondary teachers
continue to use traditional summative assessment that infrequently aligns with
recommended strategies. Shepard (2000) summed it up well when she quoted this
observation by Graue (1993): “Assessment and instruction are often conceived as
curiously separate in both time and purpose” (p. 4). The key to high-quality
formative assessment is to intertwine the two. What teachers and students need
is assessment and instruction that are conceived as a unit, employed as a unit,
and applied as a unit.
The most important thing you can take away
from this discussion of formative assessment is the understanding that no
single principle makes assessment formative. It is through the weaving together
of all the principles that high-quality formative assessment arises and the
blending of assessment and teaching occurs. For a quick overview of what these
components look like woven together, see Figure 1.1, which shows the general
flow of formative assessment principles.
Figure1.1. The Cycle of Instruction with
Now let`s consider what the cycle of
instruction might look like in practice. A teacher preparing for a discussion
of current events in an English, social studies, or other class might produce
the following plan. (You may not be familiar with some of the plan`s
strategies, but I will present these in more detail in Part 2 of the book and
in the lexicon of strategies in Appendix B.)
Goal, Standard: Differentiate fact from opinion in
Strategy: Signaling in response to simple sentences read
aloud by the teacher.
Instruction: Identify points of fact as
contrasted with expression of the author`s opinion in a newspaper editorial.
Strategy: A Corners activity in which the teacher reads
more complex sentences and students express their response by going to Fact or
Opinion corners. One student in each group presents the group`s opinion, and
the teacher leads a follow-up discussion.
Teaching: The teacher gives examples of how writers extend
fact into opinion along with guidelines for distinguishing fact from opinion.
Students read selected text, color-code examples of fact and opinion, and
record their responses in their work-alongs.
Strategy: A Think–Pair–Share activity in which students
create a color-coded T chart with facts on the left and opinions on the right.
This is followed by a whole-class review of the charts to reach consensus.
Analysis: The teacher uses data gathered to chart
individual and group learning outcomes and target areas of misunderstanding and
areas where students need additional challenge.
Strategy: A chart of students` progress, capturing and
reflecting on data gathered during Signaling, Corners, the work-along, and the
to Data: The teacher adjusts instruction and assessment
as needed to readdress the objective more effectively
Strategy: Adjustment to content/resource level of
difficulty, grouping students for additional practice or expanded learning, and
differentiating the final assessment.
the Balance in Assessment Systems
Large-scale accountability measures have
been and will continue to be with us for a long time. The use of formative
assessment does not preclude standardized testing but, rather, contributes to a
balanced assessment system. Summative assessment has traditionally asked
students to definitively express what they know. It`s akin to asking, “Are we
there yet?” or, “Have we arrived at the intended learning destination?” In
comparison, formative assessment asks what route we are taking to reach the
goal and in what way the teacher can assist in the journey.
Formative assessment gives teachers
continual information on student progress—information that supports decisions
about how much and what kind of learning, support, and practice students need
to reach the goal. In this model, assessment data come from a variety of
activities, rather than from a single assessment at the end. While formative
assessment and summative assessment serve the same learning goals, the former
is an ongoing process and the latter is a finale: the finish line at the end of
The use of standardized tests alone as the
measure of knowledge does not typically lead to improved learning. There is
little evidence that standardized tests have raised student achievement except
in a few narrow areas, primarily at the elementary level. SAT scores have been
generally consistent for many years, and most state standardized test results
have flattened out during the past few years. If we want better standardized
scores or higher final achievement for our students, we must begin at the
classroom level. Research shows that the pathways to school improvement are
lined with formative assessment. Students need constructive feedback on how to
achieve the targets and guidepost measures along the way, not simply feedback
on whether they reached the targets or not. It is formative assessment rather
than summative assessment that will make the greatest difference.
As you come to the end of this chapter, please
take a moment to consider the questions you may have about the fundamentals of
formative assessment. You may want to review any section of this chapter that
was not clear to you or move on to Chapter 2, which answers many frequently
asked questions about using assessment formatively. Your question may be