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The history of formative assessment has been short but influential in the educational community. Black and Wiliam (1998) began their analysis of the subject as a practical solution to increasing student achievement in all classrooms. Since that study others have added to the body of research highlighting the significance, process, success and failures of formative assessment. Use of formative assessment varies from individual classroom applications to comprehensive school wide implementation. The transformational nature of formative assessments is highlighted along with the change in teacher / student relationships, professional reflection, and teaching strategies that must occur for the assessments to be successful. Along with an analysis of cohort comments and experiences with the use of formative assessments, this paper explores the history of formative assessment use and misuse and offers likely applications in the future.
Keywords: formative assessment, student achievement.
A View of the Past, Present and Future
Formative assessment is a relevant and current issue in education today. Although many ideas in education are old and new are dependant dependent on the "flavor of the day" or current mandates, the formal introduction of formative assessment is a relatively modern. Black and William (1998) produced a groundbreaking study on the power and effectiveness of the new concept in education called "formative assessment." Their research was a review of many previous studies in which they argue that formative assessment is the only real method of increasing student understanding and achievement across age and curricular level. Since that initial work there have been numerous responses and studies that further refine the practice of formative assessment and its results in classrooms across the world. Currently, the work of research in formative assessment is focusing on the refinement of a theoretical basis and connection to the practice of formative assessment. It is now being viewed as a comprehensive and transformational classroom tool that can and does affect every aspect of teaching and learning. Additionally, there are current recommendations for teachers and students to refine the practice of formative assessment and incorporate them into a wider variety of classrooms while continuing to focus on increased student achievement. Another factor in the understanding of the history and impact of formative assessment comes from EA 749 classroom comment and my own experiences which provide an application based analysis of formative assessment in classrooms today. The relatively short history of formative assessment has provided a great deal of practical knowledge that supports its use in teacher and student development while providing for greater levels of student achievement.
As stated previously the past of formative assessment is recent and only mentioned in literature before the work of Black and Wiliam (1998). They conducted the first analysis and review of the body of research that exists on the topic of formative assessment. The premise of their research and argument is that most reforms introduced and supported in education are external and ignore what is happening in the classroom. Most mandated educational reforms discuss problems and issues that need to be resolved, but do little to offer help to make these changes occur. Real reform comes from what is happening inside classrooms and it is in this area that teachers and students need to focus on change. Furthermore, suggestions to teachers that change is needed are not sufficient as support needs to be specific and relevant. Older models of education focus on the teacher/student relationship being paternalistic and focused on a one way transfer of information. Black and Wiliam (ibid) discovered that the relationship between teacher and student requires interactivity and honesty. The communication between teacher and student must be frequent and regular while both provide feedback to their level of learning and understanding.
Black and Wiliam (ibid) spent a great deal of time discussing the need for improvement in classrooms, the role of formative assessment in leading that improvement, and the practices that would improve formative assessment itself. Research has shown that many classroom practices focus on rote learning that is superficial and non-contextual and often independent from the work of other teachers in different classrooms. Classroom grades and marks are often emphasized in classrooms, while feedback is not developed and formalized between teachers and students. Finally, there is a lack of coordination between previous and current teachers of similar students in order to focus on issues that can help individual student achievement.
The small body of research prior to 1998 encourages further study. Students that were labeled as "low achievers" achieved great benefit from formative assessment practices in studied classrooms. This work was specific to a small set of classrooms, but it is significant that formative assessment was highlighted as providing the most significant positive impact in achievement among twenty-three other interventions.
Finally the authors focus on the practice and use of formative assessment and how it can be improved. They advocate for a "culture of success, backed by a belief that all children can succeed" (Black and Wiliam, ibid). Techniques such as questioning by the teacher to elicit understanding and knowledge from students are crucial. A current understanding of what and how many students have learned a particular concept is critical to the development of formative assessment. This information can be derived from the teacher directly, or from peers working with each other. Wait time by teachers must also increase when asking questions for formative assessment. Increased wait time has shown to be effective in increasing students' thought and analysis of ideas.
Black and Wiliam (ibid) conclude their work by making many recommendations for further study. The first is that teachers will never take information regarding formative assessment that is devoid of context or classroom application and use it effectively. Further research is recommended into the professional development strategies that can assist teachers in implementing formative assessments as a regular part of classroom practice.
The development of formative assessment since the initial research by Black and Wiliam has been tremendous. There is a large body of research that has developed from this research and there are several new findings that continue the evolution of formative assessment and its impact in classrooms. Additionally, there are companies that have used the popularity of formative assessments in education to develop products labeled as formative. In fact many of these tests and assessments are not formative and are mislabeled and misused.
In order to assess the initial work completed in 1998, Black et al. wrote a follow up study in 2004. Black et al. (2004) felt as though there was good foundation for the need and power of formative assessments but little detail in how to improve the assessments, which was one of their original goals. They suggest several refinements to the original research which can enhance the quality of formative assessments and make them user friendly for classroom teachers. The first suggestion is to introduce a formal process of questioning in the classroom. Part of this research focuses on wait time as previously mentioned, as well as teachers' spending time creating questions that probe issues with depth and cannot be answered with a "yes"or "no". Any follow-up activities to the questioning session must be meaningful and substantive so that students' reflections of their work are also involved and meaningful.
Black et al. (ibid) also focus on feedback to students through grading. They found that numerical scores for students were not only insufficient in providing students with helpful feedback but actually created a negative impact. They focused on working with teachers to provide feedback that is specific and telling without scoring the work. This is problematic for teachers and school policies that are trained in scoring all work and indeed many school policies reflect this practice. In addition to providing meaningful feedback to students, students should be allowed to respond to the feedback for increased learning and understanding.
Another recommendation from Black et al. (2004) highlights the importance of peer or self-assessment. This skill must be developed by teachers in students and is not inherently present in most students' daily practice. In order to develop this skill, learning objectives must be clear to all students so that they can understand and transfer them to other students' work. Additionally, helping students to learn to work together can be helpful in them becoming more reflective reviewers of peer work. Finally, in the area of self-assessment students must be convinced that their self-critique will not negatively impact their grade or mark, as the culture of the classroom must shift from grading to reflection. Students will only be honest with their critiques if the impacts of the reviews are stated for learning not grading.
The final recommendation of Black et al. (2004) is how to help teachers use summative tests formatively. Summative assessments do not have to lose the format or spirit of a reflective, formative classroom. Students and teachers can use feedback, peer and self-review, and reflection can be hallmarks of summative assessments as well. This transformation will allow classrooms to fundamentally change and reflect the practices of formative assessment in all aspects of instruction and assessment.
Wiliam (2008) furthers his research into formative assessment by arguing that teachers can best refine and develop formative practices in learning communities. He highlights that many changes suggested in research and practice seem practical and minor but are actually difficult to put in practice. Teachers are more comfortable with traditional teacher student roles, grading assessments, and one-way communication. Even if teachers are trained and aware of the benefits of formative assessment, many find it difficult to implement them as a continuous classroom practice. To emphasize his point, he states "Knowing that is different that knowing how. But in the model of learning that dominates teacher professional development, we assume that if we teach the knowing that, then the knowing how will follow." (Wiliam 2008, p. 38) Most professional development trains teachers using a model that is counter to the effective practices of formative assessment. That is, teachers sit in rooms and absorb information that is external to their classroom practice and unique situation. He goes on to advocate for teacher learning communities that are both supportive and peer driven to refine the implementation and practice of classroom formative assessment. These communities seem very similar to the work on professional learning communities first suggested by DuFour and Eacker in 1998, although Wiliam makes no mention of these in his work. In his learning communities teachers of similar disciplines should structure their time into five segments. The first is the introduction by each member of the group that allowed everyone to get focused on formative assessments and stay on track. A large segment of time should then be spent with teachers reporting out on the status of formative assessment in their classrooms with colleagues giving support and suggestions. Next, new information regarding formative assessments and their use can be introduced and discussed. Finally, there is time for teachers to visit their personal classroom plans and alter them based on information from others and review the meeting. Wiliam (ibid) suggests that this approach is self-sustaining and will be productive for all teachers involved. It allows time and structure for teachers to gain support from their colleagues while continuously adding to their knowledge base.
Popham (2008) adds to the current body of research on formative assessment by forwarding several steps to successful implementation of formative assessment. First, and importantly, he offers a concise definition of formative assessment: "Formative assessment is a planned process in which assessment-elicited evidence of students' status is used by teachers to adjust their ongoing instructional practices or by students to adjust their current learning tactics." (Popham 2008, p. 17) Looking at the definition in detail, it is important to understand that formative assessment is not just a process, but one that is planned in advance. Current knowledge of students' abilities and deficiencies is important in planning phases of assessments as well as when collecting information from the assessment itself. It is important that the reflection of knowledge is from students and teachers and transmitted in both directions. Popham (ibid) is critical of companies that are marketing and selling tests that are labeled as formative. Often these "benchmark" students and give information on program evaluation, but do little to assist with learning and understanding. There are limitations of formative assessments based on research and they involve translating good formative practice to marked improvement on accountability tests. He argues that there is no doubt students learn more in classrooms that use formative assessment, but this does not directly translate to scores on standardized tests and a total solution to No Child Left Behind legislation. Although there are limitations to the use of formative assessment for state requirement, there is still great value in their improvement in classroom practice. He suggests four levels that build upon themselves to produce greater use and emersion of formative assessments. Teachers must adjust their instruction and students must alter their learning which will produce reflective classrooms. Through professional development formative classrooms can build to schools based in formative assessment.
Fisher et al. (2008) commented on the school wide implementation though their research over two years at a high school in California. They suggest a progressive professional develop program that will allow individual classrooms using formative assessment to transfer their practice school wide. The first recommendation is to develop pacing guides for teachers in "course-like" groups, not traditional departments. These guides have common vocabulary for teacher and student learning as well as goals for all classrooms. The second step for implementation has teachers creating common formative assessment activities. These allowed teachers to compare results and practices for reflection and future modification. Additionally, they assured that all students were receiving formative assessments in their instruction and learning. The third step in implementation was for teachers to complete item analysis reports on formative assessments and indicate which questions were well understood and which needed more instruction. This allowed for individual and group teacher reflection in deciding what to reteach and where to refocus their energies. Finally, teachers engaged in instructional conversation that links instruction with data and results by analyzing which instructional strategies were effective and which needed modification.
Since its introduction in 1998, formative assessment has become a major topic in the field of educational research and classroom practice. Black and Wiliam (2010) revisit their research and that of others to make recommendations for the future of formative assessment and its impact on education. In order for further refinement to continue, teachers and students must continue to develop dialogue that is interactive. This dialogue needs to operate on many levels between teachers and students as well as amongst themselves. Additionally, they argue that the future of formative assessment rests in the strategic and transformative nature of its full implementation. Too often teachers see educational ideas as pieces to add to their teaching techniques and practices, but Black and Wiliam (ibid) argue for a more transformational approach. They see real formative assessment changing the way teachers and students relate to each other on a fundamental level, with both groups developing listening and thinking skills.
Black and Wiliam (2009) also went on to create a detailed theory of formative assessment based on the body of research and evidence over the previous eleven years. One of the criticisms of the original research is that there is not a link between the evidence of good formative assessment and a learning theory. In this research, Black and Wiliam develop an educational research theory that is analytical and provides a basis for the positive results formative assessment has shown. They assert that a gap exists between theory and the body of current literature on formative assessment. Further, they work to create links between formative assessment interactions between teachers and students and pedagogy. Finally, they hope to create ideas that will continue to improve practice in the future and they found several ideas that can lead future research into formative assessment. One example is providing more targeted and specific guidance for teachers to help them understand student contributions and match their responses in a specific and helpful manner.
Discussion from classmates on the topic of formative assessment began with a discussion posed by Brad. He focused on the Popham (2010) idea that formative assessments are often misused and misunderstood. Often formative assessment is just viewed as a type of test not a process that allows teachers to make adjustments to their teaching. Brad went on to refer to a diagram that illustrates the four levels of formative assessment development from teacher, student, classroom, and finally school. He specifically asked the cohort to discuss the ways in which they have used formative assessment in the planning process with students.
Mary answered by indicating her school has begun to introduce formative assessments and reflect them in their grade books. She also indicated that students are using the information from formative assessments to monitor their own growth and state what they can and are learning. She felt as though this has helped her instruction become more intentional and results driven. Tera reflected that she uses a backwards design in instruction with the assessment created before the instruction begins. This allows her to adjust her instruction and become reflective and provide a variety of activities for students to be ready for the assessment. Stacy used formative assessment with students in groups and she would monitor the results of each group. Students that did not get the correct answers could not move on to additional problems but had to be grouped with others that needed additional assistance.
Tera readdressed the idea of formative assessment in her current position of a curriculum and assessment coordinator. She finds that teachers often want to jump to the creation of the formative assessments as tests when they do not understand the concepts or process that should be followed. As a classroom teacher, Tera used pre-assessments to determine the current level of understanding her students possessed. She used this information to create classroom plans and modified them as students learned the material regrouping students as needs developed. Brunilda found the idea that formative assessment is a process to be an "aha" as she has used this in EI classrooms before. By using IEP's and current knowledge of her students, Brunilda altered instruction to meet the needs of her students. Jennifer made a connection to her teaching and the realization that some students did not comprehend material and she had to go back and reteach using different methods.
Madeline reflected that many teachers use formative assessments to alter their teaching but students are not using the information to adjust their learning. She argues that students must be taught the skills of self-reflection, goal setting, data analysis, and goal adjustment in order to benefit from formative assessment.
The discussion of the cohort on the topic of formative assessment links well with the research and indicates that many classrooms have developed some teacher competency in formative assessment but it is not fully or universally developed. Individual teachers have taken aspects of formative assessment and added them to their toolbox for teaching, but the training of students to learn and reflect differently has not happened. There is also little evidence that formative assessment has transferred to entire schools or communities as Black and Wiliam suggest as the final phase of implementation.
The body of research on the topic of formative assessment was personally interesting for a number of reasons. It is surprising that as dominant an idea in education today that is formative assessment many teachers and administrators, including myself, do not fully understand their power and transformational abilities. In my experience, formative assessments are used as pieces of learning and assessment added to enhance instruction. There is little reflection or general change in the way instruction is provided, however. Another interesting aspect of formative assessment is the relatively short period of time it has existed on the educational scene and the small number of individuals actively engaged in research on the topic. Black, Wiliam, and Popham dominate the practical and theoretical research on formative assessment and are the only researchers that have created meta-studies of smaller research projects. The work of Fisher et al. (2008) is interesting in that elements of school wide implementation are not congruent with the ideas of Black, Wiliam, and Popham. They use the term formative assessment in their research and findings, but much or the instruction was one directional, and tests were summative. It seemed as though there was a lack of true understanding of the comprehensive nature of formative assessment or an attempt to use the term in their title to capture the popular wave of the topic.