With everything being said today about assessments, we should fully understand the process and how it impacts learning. But I fear that many educators fail to use formative assessments to their maximum potential. Much of the fault lies in thinking about formative assessment as a kind of test. In fact, many vendors now tout their pre-packaged interim tests or their standardized tests administered every few months as “formative assessments.”
Let’s step back and briefly review the distinction between formative and summative assessments. Summative assessment refers to the assessment of learning and summarizes the performance of students at a particular moment in time. Formative assessment, on the other hand refers to assessment for learning. It is a process used during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement. I have developed this simple diagram that details the difference visually.
The primary objective of formative assessments is not to assign grades, but rather to inform the teacher and the student of what they know or do not know. More important, formative assessments allow teachers to monitor their instruction and make decisions based on immediate student performance. The evidence that is gathered comes from a variety of sources, including traditional tests as well as informal procedures such as students’ own assessment of how well they understand a concept. In fact, I personally believe that student self-evaluation methods are vastly underused as tools to gather formative assessment data.
We must also not forget the value of the teacher in making qualitative instructional decisions. One of the most valuable forms of formative assessment is simply teacher observations of student mastery of content matter. Formative assessment can occur as a teacher is observing students’ work, discussion, debates, etc. and then reacting to what he or she sees. As I pointed out in another post, one veteran teacher observed, “I can see it in their eyes when they’ve learned it.”
In summary, educators must use a variety of tools to inform them about the level of learning of individual students and be ready to make appropriate adjustments.