Assessment Education Perspectives

Putting Formative Assessment in Context

Putting Formative Assessment in Context

Many people, when they think of assessments, think of summative accountability assessments: that is, those state or district-wide standardized tests that measure grade-level proficiency and end-of-year subject or course exams. There are also interim or benchmark exams. Interim assessment may be administered multiple times between instances of summative assessment to measure progress towards meeting the summative expectations (interim benchmark assessment) or to measure growth on a continuum of learning (interim growth measures). To get a better sense of the various definitions of assessment and their roles in the classroom, check out the different assessment types page here at our site.

It can be frustrating to hear people when they lump formative assessment into the interim or benchmark assessment category. To me, formative assessment is not necessarily a test, and it certainly isn’t for grading. In fact, student learning from formative assessment shouldn’t even be a factor in grading. Why? While some students have greater knowledge of a certain topic than others at the outset of a lesson, if teachers are successful in their efforts at imparting that lesson, all students should, at least, have the same baseline knowledge of that lesson once it’s taught. If they all can’t meet that baseline of measurement, then where does the responsibility lie? With the student or the teacher?

While some teachers may say that the responsibility lies with the student, those teachers who are making a real impact in the classroom would probably answer “both.” With formative assessment strategies and techniques, teachers get quick reads of where students are in learning the lesson and make adjustments along the way. If they identify a few students who aren’t moving forward, they can provide additional information or support accordingly. If students are collecting and using the evidence of their learning, with the help of their teacher and peers, they, too, can make adjustments in their learning tactics and seek out peers as resources.

This is much different than interim assessment or summative assessment, where learning is measured and possibly even graded for benchmarking purposes. These are assessments of learning and not for learning. They are certainly useful tools, just not day-to-day or even minute-by-minute tools that can have an impact on learning. They determine if learning has occurred, but they do not move learning forward; they determine what has been learned (past tense), not what needs to be taught (present tense).

Understanding the differences between formative assessment and interim and summative assessments is important in determining how best to use the data and insight each one provides. We hope this site can help educators, students and teachers make the most of all educational assessments available to them and understand the need for a balanced approach to assessment.

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Kathy Dyer